Book review: A Preamble to Depravity by A. Phillips

A Preamble to Depravity (Electrical Hearts) - A. Phillips
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There's a curiously split personality about A Phillips' A Preamble to Depravity, the first book in his Electrical Hearts series following the prelude of A Magical Tale With Geek Appeal, a division that perhaps lies within the concept of the work itself, is essential to maintain a slightly distanced tone, and indeed it can even be seen in the nature of this book's lead character, Inspector Alexander von Purzeus, an official of the Hapsburg Empire who has a very high opinion of himself and his 'suprasensual' powers. The conflict within von Purzeus and his sexual appetites can be identified to some extent by his strange semi-metamorphosis early in the book to bear the head of a lion and the body of a man.

For one reason or another, but probably a combination of events involving the ignominious death of a perverted colonel, the suspicious death of a crown prince in Mayerling, and his prominence and notoriety in organising 'suprasensual' (sadomasochist) orgies of the utmost depravity involving a number of high society luminaries in Vienna, von Purzeus has been sent to take up a post in Kutna Hora, in the Bohemian outreaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There's also the matter of restoring his sister Isadora back to health after circumstances and scientific developments have led to her being cryogenically preserved. Von Purzeus hopes that successful resolution of a series of illegal murders (as opposed to state approved ones) might lead to his sister's revival.

There is however something clearly very strange taking place in Kutna Hora. Von Purzeus discovers on arriving at the town that not only do all of its officials and aristocracy have a distinctly feline appearance, but he himself has found himself transformed into one of what are known as Löwenkopfen, bearing the head of a lion. More than that, the kind of 'playful' activities and indulging of lusts that he is used to taking place behind closed doors at one of his soirées, is enacted upon the enslaved 'lads' and 'maidens' of the town here in broad daylight with rather more violent intent. Someone may perhaps be pushing those base instincts too far judging by the number of brutalised dead bodies that have been turning up.

That takes von Purzeus some getting used to, and it must be said that the attitude of von Purzeus takes some getting used to as well on the part of the reader. He's arrogant in his sense of superiority and self-regard, and viewed from his perspective as the narrator, there's a distinctly ugly and misogynistic side to his observations, but although von Purzeus sees himself as exceptional, he's only really the extreme embodiment of the decadent society that he belongs to. You are perhaps not so much supposed to find his views sympathetic as a parody of high society and its detachment from sentiments, particularly in other people, which are of no concern to him other than to satisfy his own depraved desires.

There is a witty character to this then that Phillips' writing captures well, particularly as von Purzeus at one or two points starts to develop feelings for other people that some might approximate as 'love', but there is it has to be said rather a distasteful amount of sexual aggression in A Preamble to Depravity (to put it in mild terms) or rape if you like, as well as other provocative elements introduced such as passing references to bestiality and cannibalism. It does at times feel like a rather juvenile attempt to shock and push boundaries, and you could question whether it is even needed, whether the book couldn't work just as well as a kind of alternative reality steampunk Erast Fandorin adventure, but there might be another reason for the book's rather harmlessly prurient nature.

And that might be down to the nature of the book in a continuing series (called variously Electrical Hearts and Deus ex Sadomas) that seems to operate at several different levels where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are somewhat blurred. At a late stage in the novel Otto drops into the story, a somewhat geeky Austrian from modern times with the lower half of a monkey who mutters incomprehensibly to von Purzeus about the Internet and Google. Without having read the previous Electrical Hearts book, A Magical Tale With Geek Appeal, there is an impression - particularly with Otto failing to accept that this steampunk version of the Hapsburg Empire is anything more than a computer simulation - that you shouldn't take anything on face value here.

A Preamble to Depravity has some potential as a satire then that might make more sense within the context of an imaginative continuing series exploring several realities, and it certainly has a distinct character of its own, but as a standalone that finishes rather abruptly and strangely, its tone might be rather off-putting rather than encouraging anyone to explore this world further.

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