It is set in 1849, amidst the fallout from the Revolutions of 1848. It tells the story of the mysteries surrounding James Cobham waking up and finding that he is believed dead, and the various conspiracies surrounding him.
Contains examples of:
- Cold-Blooded Torture: James is burned with a hot poker by Eleanor Tournier.
- Coupled Couples: Richard and Kitty, and James and Susan.
- Death Faked for You: Happens to James twice. The first time by a fanatical secret cult in order to pull information from him, the second by his friends and allies so he can escape the gallows and have a chance at freedom.
- Eternal Sexual Freedom: To a degree, characters engage in premarital sex and aren't stigmatized. Somewhat justified though as the characters are supposed to be radicals for their time period, and being wealthy probably helps protect them from scrutiny. There is some historical accuracy here, since there were free love advocates in the mid-19th century who did the same thing.
- Kissing Cousins: Richard and Kitty (only by marriage, since Kitty is James' stepsister though if James is Richard's half-brother...), Susan and James. They're second cousins, though.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: James Cobham is the illegitimate son of William Cobham, making him and Richard half-brothers.
- The Noun and the Noun: The title.
- Rich Idiot With No Day Job: James Cobham acts like a Brilliant, but Lazy guy who wastes his time drinking and wenching; he actually participated in the Chartist revolts under an assumed name and is actually very politically conscious
- Shout-Out: At one part early in the novel, Richard is discussing poets he had Kitty have read, and he makes reference to the volume of Ashbless on his shelf. Ashbless is a fictional Romantic poet invented by Tim Powers.
- Sweet Polly Oliver: Susan dresses up as a man and poses as an Oxford student in order to find information about James.
- Tall, Dark, and Snarky: Quite a number of people, but especially Richard and James Cobham.