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Review: The Sterling Directive by Tim Standish

An alternate history espionage thriller set in Victorian England.

I really enjoy alternate history books. It’s so fun to be taken on a journey to a past where things are almost the same as what we think they should be, but with a twist that makes it all fresh.

I also really enjoy books set in Victorian London, books about Jack the Ripper, and espionage thrillers.

So, you could imagine my delight in reading The Sterling Directive, by Tim Standish, as this book combines all of the above, and even throws in a sideways nod to the legend of Spring-heel Jack, one of my favourite creepy ghosty urban legends about Victorian England. Oh, I am ALL in!

The book opens in 1896 and is set in an alternative London which includes airships, some steam technology, and early computers, called “engines”. Seven years previous, Charles Maddox had been framed for murder and sent off into exile in Canada in order to escape the gallows. But he surreptitiously returns back to London before his ten-year exile is up, in order to settle scores with the old friend who betrayed him and to see his dying father. But his real identity is discovered and he is quickly captured by the Bureau of Engine Security, suspected of being involved in a plot to smuggle illegal arms to rebels seeking to overthrow the Confederate American government while he was at his post in Canada.

Things look bleak, but his fortunes change when he is rescued by a mysterious semi-official government agency call the Map Room, and given the opportunity to work for them in exchange for a pardon for the crime he was exiled to Canada for in the first place. In particular, they want him to help him look into the origins of the shadowy conspiracy that surrounded the five Ripper murders eight years before, as well as a sixth one that occurred only two nights before.

Thus Maddox, now given the code name Sterling, sets off on unraveling the conspiracy which, he eventually discovers, leads to the highest levels of British society. As he does so, he is partnered with Church, another agent of the Map Room, as well as the “tapper” Patience who is the machine (computer) expert, and an older man, Collier. Overseeing all is the head of the Map Room, the elegant and enigmatic woman who is only known as Milady.

The story has a James Bond meets Jack the Ripper meets Sherlock Holmes meets steampunk feel, and it is a great deal of fun. Plus there is a lot of tea…of which I heartily approve. It took me a little bit to figure out exactly what was going on right at the beginning, but once Maddox/Sterling gets into his role at the Map Room the story really takes off. The fantasy elements don’t overwhelm the story but are a nice addition to it, and I enjoyed the hints of how history has departed in a different direction to our own besides the steampunk technology. For example, America is known as the Confederate States, renamed after a second Civil War, in which presumably the Confederate Army won. And in Europe, Napoleon V leads the New French Empire, which has become the centre of espionage.

Spring-heeled Jack shows up at the end of the novel…or does he? Image from Wikipedia.

This is Tim Standish’s debut novel, and I really enjoyed it. Sterling is an interesting character, and we quickly root for him as he settles into his role at the Map Room. The story moves along nicely and kept my attention to the very end. The writing was solid, with no issues that I could see. It sounds like more novels are coming featuring Sterling and the Map Room, and I will be very glad to read them. I’m looking forward to exploring more of this world!

All in all, The Sterling Directive was a satisfying, fun read.