Maybe not the best idea to start with the second book in a series, but I didn't know that's what I was doing at the time. The book is set in 1862, one that has been altered from what we're familiar with because in the previous book a man traveled back from the far future to the 1840s and killed Queen Victoria, then bounced around the 19th century and was ultimately killed by Sir Richard Burton. The end result is history has changed significantly, though only Burton and a few others know it, and there are a wide array of advances, both technological and biological, popping up. I'm not sure what a time-traveling assassin has to do with being able to grow enormous, carnivorous plants, but OK, sure. Burton recaps enough of the story to other characters at different points where it's possible for a new reader to grasp the general outline of what's happened before.
Here, there's a group after a mysterious black diamond with the ability to increase one's spiritual powers, including mesmerism and astral projection. This has some connection with the sudden appearance of an heir to a landed family, and a marked increase in social unrest among the working classes towards people higher up the economic ladder. And Burton, who serves as an agent of the King (via Palmerston*, who has apparently undergone steampunk botox or some such thing), and his poet acquaintance Algernon Swinburne get tasked with figuring out what the hell is going on.
It reminds me a bit of Harry Turtledove's books, which I loved when in I was in junior high and high school. Now, it's more noticeable that even with this shift in the timeline, most of the major players are still people who were major players in our timeline. Heck, even Burton's local paperboy is an orphaned Oscar Wilde, already showing a knack for pithy observations, because of course he is. I guess the choice is to resent it and fight it, or accept it's that kind of book and go with it.
For the most part, I went with it. It didn't take long to read, the plot proceeds at a solid pace, and Hodder introduced a bit of a Chekov's Gun in the first two chapters that paid off in a way I wasn't expecting at the end. Actually, I initially thought the first two chapters were their own story, and this was going to be a collection of short adventures of Burton and Swinburne. But no, it was part of the larger story.
There'll probably be another book down the line; Hodder telegraphed that. I might pick it up if I see it. This was a decent enough action story to stand on its own, though. one other point. There's that story about John Ostrander having an Australian friend who talked to him about Captain Boomerang's dialogue. Ostrander argued Aussies say all the things he writes for Boomer, and his friend replied, 'Yes, but not in the same sentence.' There are a few instances of that, where Hodder took every English exclamation or slang he could think of and made a sentence of them.
'A bizarre vehicle had snaked into view from around the next corner and was thundering toward them at high speed. It was a millipede - an actual insect - grown to stupendous proportions by the Eugenicists. When it had reached the required size, they'd killed it and handed the carcass over to their Engineering colleagues, who'd sliced off the top half of its long, segmented, tubular body. They'd removed the innards until only the tough outer carapace remained, and into this they'd fitted steam-driven machinery via which the many legs could be operated. platforms had been bolted across the top of each segment and upon them seats affixed, over canopies arched, echoing the shape of the missing top half of the body. A driver sat at the front of the vehicle in a chair carved from the shell of the head.'
* Every time Palmerston appears in the book, I think of the Simpsons, and Barney Gumble punching out Wade Boggs over whether Palmerston was a greater Prime Minister than Pitt the Elder.