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The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock

February 16, 2013 4 comments

the-aylesford-skull-book-cover

Nostalgia is a rather curious emotional response to a current stimulus or event. Like Pavlov’s dog, we seem to have programmed ourselves to take pleasure in recalling past events. This is not to say we find today’s realities unpleasant and wish to escape. It’s simply that something triggers our memories of past events. It can be coming across an old photograph or a snatch of music half-heard on the radio. Perhaps a casual word in conversation or revisiting a place we knew well as children throws us back in time. No matter what the stimulus, the result is a mixture of faint romanticism and some melancholy, i.e. fairly powerful emotions associated with pleasure are tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. The evocation of the past is strong. We have a sense of “truth” but there’s also a slightly gratuitous and shallow feeling. In our more rational moments, we acknowledge our memories are gilded. That’s it’s convenient to remember the good stuff and push the bad into the deeper recesses of memory.

As I approach the end of my days, I find myself caught in two quite different waves of nostalgia. One is the more conventional sense that there were many aspects of my life as a child and young adult that were positive and constructive. While I would not want to return to that time — there were too many hardships — I miss the sense of innocence that came from growing up in an information bubble. Today the world intrudes in our lives at every point with mass media and the internet competing for our attention, passing on both substantive and trivial news of the latest events from around the world. I’m not sure that the culture of childhood today is giving the young a chance to develop their full potential. The result of this first stage nostalgia is that I’m profoundly relieved to be old and therefore no longer caught up in the lives of the ephemeral Mayflies who declare themselves “adults” before they have had the chance to understand the benefits of remaining young.

The other form of nostalgia flows from the emotional constructs I formed as a child. Even in those days, I was an obsessive reader, ploughing relentlessly through both British and American fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. At that time, my mind was filled with a sense of wonder that the recent past had been so exciting. My memories of this childhood nostalgia for all things Victorian and Edwardian create significant emotional responses to modern subgenres like steampunk. This second tier response reinforces my more general nostalgia for “the past”. I’m therefore predisposed to like modern authors like Tim Powers and James P Blaylock because they are playing with the mythology of the past. Their interests and sensibilities overlap the remembered fictional worlds from Dickens to the penny dreadfuls, from Jack London to the pulps. Yes, it’s actually a false nostalgia, but I enjoy revisiting it every now and again.

James P Blaylock triggering my nostalgia response

James P Blaylock triggering my nostalgia response

The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (Titan Books, 2013) continues the saga of Langdon St James and his battle with Dr Ignacio Narbondo. Although I dislike the publishers’ labelling conventions, it’s actually useful to list the different features of this novel. Insofar as it contains real-world characters like Arthur Conan Doyle and, offstage, Gladstone, we might choose to think of this as being alternate history. It nicely captures the time when London was in a ferment because of the activities of the Fenians and the anarchists. Set in 1883, the world was reeling from the Phoenix Park murders and Gladstone was under pressure to repeal the Irish coercion laws. This book produces a complex plot to destabilise the government and evict Gladstone from power. It’s a great success as a Victorian political thriller. As a second strand, it’s steampunk. History tells us that, in 1883, Gaston Tissandier made the first electric-powered flight in a dirigible. In this book, we have a sophisticated electric motor and steering system for an airship which flies around London. There’s also some interesting technology for using coal dust as an explosive with portable systems for deploying the dust in suspension and then igniting it. Then we have a supernatural element which cloaks the conventional adventure in fantasy motley. Put simply our evil genius has developed a system for trapping the soul in the skull upon death. He plans an explosive release of the trapped spirit which should force open a door. Who can say where the door will lead nor, if it opened in Hell, what might come through into the human realm. We’re also treated to various other supernatural phenomena in Victorian style with references to table-turning, Planchette boards and other forms of spirit-based communication and foretelling.

Overall, it’s a beautifully constructed adventure novel in the Edwardian style. In spirit, it reminds me of thrillers by Sapper (pseudonym of H C McNeile) although, this being a modern book, we get better written female characters and none of the cultural baggage that would make a real period book less than acceptable to modern readers, i.e. the disparaging views of the minorities, the ghastly sexism and the increasingly virulent fascism that came to characterise so much of the fiction written between the wars. From this you will understand this is not a Dickensian novel. Although set in Victorian England, we have a sanitised version of life in and around London. This is very much a “fantasy” version of the capital as befits the steampunk subgenre. We can’t have revolutionary scientific advances against too dark a background. The book is intended as adventure and not a political satire or a realistic depiction of life in some of the more dangerous parts of the capital. That we can have a young Arthur Conan Doyle fighting alongside Langdon St James is simply part of the fun. As you would expect, there’s mayhem and death, political skullduggery and a threatened supernatural armageddon. But it’s all told with breathless excitement and regular edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.

All of which should signal my immense enjoyment. Although I might cavil at one or two of the vocabulary choices, this is a remarkably sustained piece of writing in a period style suitable for modern sensibilities. I was entranced. That it’s all magnificent nonsense simply adds to the fun of it all. No matter what your age or predisposition to nostalgia, The Aylesford Skull is a book you should read.

For a review of another book by James B Blaylock, see Zeuglodon.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Skulduggery by Carolyn Hart

December 4, 2012 Leave a comment

skulduggery

Being old and something of a collector, I’ve accumulated a mess of music over the years and, when the mood is upon me, I power up the record deck and indulge my nostalgia for old skool singles and LPs. It’s all a rather random process as I refresh my memory. Most recently, I’ve been reassessing the work of Tony Banks. Perhaps it’s just an ironic coincidence that the one track that briefly stuck in my mind was “Throwback” from Bankstatement (1989). It’s pleasingly retro in feel, a kind of recreation of simple melodic line over a bass riff. By which circuitous route, we arrive at Skulduggery by Carolyn Hart (Seventh Street Books, 2012) which brings back into print a title first published in 2000. Even in 2000, this was a throwback in style. To read it now is to relive the delights of the past where a simple and direct approach to putting an adventure novel together was the norm. Indulge me for a moment and travel back to 1930 when The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett first appeared on book shelves. This classic starts off as what looks like a routine case for a PI. All they have to do is follow a man alleged to be involved in unfortunate romantic entanglements but, when one of the two PIs ends up dead, we have ourselves an unparalleled experience as a hunt for long-lost treasure diverts from simple murder to kidnapping and extortion.

Carolyn Hart and her muse

Carolyn Hart and her muse

It should be said up front that this book is not in the same league as The Maltese Falcon, but it follows a comparable plot pattern in that an anthropologist is invited to authenticate a skull. She only has time for the briefest of examinations in a poorly lit cellar with no access to proper forensic tools with which to confirm its authenticity. Yet, just holding it, she’s convinced it belongs to the long-lost bones of Peking Man. At a stroke, this rips her from the humdrum routine of her job in a museum, and shows her a different world of danger and violence. It starts by reinforcing the use of stereotypes with the Chinese community as the backdrop. Ever since Fu Manchu and the yellow peril stories, the Asians including the Chinese have been viewed with a particular sense of horror, as if their very presence is a threat to the future prosperity, if not the existence, of those who live in the West. So this book starts us off with a confrontation and a chase through secret tunnels terminating in a gambling den. Fortunately, our author recognises she’s pandering to deep-rooted prejudices and switches into writing a more honest social document. Indeed, she invests considerable effort in cataloguing the very real problems experienced by the Chinese community as the old and newly arrived try to survive in adverse conditions. We meet a succession of people who try to help, have received help and are slowly coming out of their despair, and those who have been victimsed. It’s a major shift of pace and tone. The breathless excitement is put on hold as the author explains the “facts” of life in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Then, the documentary style is dropped and we get back into adventure mode, wrap everything up, and leave our heroine with a new love interest in her life. It seems not unlike the cruise-ship romance syndrome that people who investigate together at the risk of their lives are destined to fall into bed with each other when everything is resolved at the end.

On balance, I’m not very impressed. It’s a slight story and, although the adventure bits are done very well, it’s all a bit predictable as our heroine gets into the thick of the action and has to be rescued by the hunk. However, this does raise the more interesting virtue of the book. The hunk is Chinese and this makes for a biracial couple. I recently put a quick list together featuring HawthoRNe with the relationship between Jada Pinkett Smith and Michael Vartan, Private Practice with Taye Diggs and Kate Walsh, Happy Endings with Damon Wayans Jr. and Eliza Coupe, and Wonderfalls between Traci Thoms and Lee Pace. I was making the point that mainstream television does occasionally break the mould of prejudice and show happy mixed race couples. So it’s good I’m able to applaud Carolyn Hart who has her heroine cosying up to a Chinese guy without a second thought. She does what comes naturally without worries about what other people might say. Other than this, I can’t say I think this book is worth reprinting for the modern audience. Unlike the “Throwback” which I can still hum along with, this is forgettable.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

October 9, 2012 5 comments

I’m pleased to be able to report Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris (Harper Voyager, 2011) Volume 1 Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences a success. It manages to do something very difficult with considerable skill and a great sense of fun. For this review, I need to remind people that I was born not long after the last dinosaur perished — a great disappointment to me because my parents always spoke with a look of wonder in their eyes when describing T.Rex in their heyday. This venerable age means I have read literature over the centuries. I have followed the adventures of Greek heroes, felt the passion in the sagas describing Beowulf’s exploits, and so on. More recently, I’ve been in thrall to the adventure stories of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. There’s something simple and direct about their narrative drive. Although there are occasional references to the social context in which the adventures are taking place, they are kept to a minimum and not allowed to distract from getting on with the action. In more modern times, people have been playing with this older format in what’s called steampunk. This takes the broad sweep of adventure and enlivens it by introducing anachronistic machinery. So it is that our Victorian forebears secretly invented miraculous steam-driven technology and used clockwork in entirely unexpected ways. Except most of these exercises are po-faced and formulaic. Authors are lazy and throw in an airship or land leviathan for effect without thinking about how the culture would have to develop to produce such machines. They believe the essence of steampunk lies in trotting out the same tired old props and littering them through uninspiring plots in the hope of entertaining the mass market with their novelty. Except the results, for the most part, are boring.

This is a successful steampunk because the authors have taken the trouble to develop interesting characters and put them in a classic adventure with a credible social and political context. Britain was actually quite strongly influenced by anarchism from around 1880 to the start of World War I. Although the anarchists never managed to create a coherent political platform, they were contributing significantly to the discussion of the problems in Victorian society. Indeed, their contribution was, at times, highly original and difficult to ignore unlike the Socialists were were more passive and therefore more easily ignored. To get this period right, authors must therefore think about why access to education was limited, how the encouragement of autodidacticism relieved the problem, how Utopianism came to take root, where communal living became a practical way of life and how the status of women evolved.

Three’s a charm with Pip Ballantine and Tee Morrris

We start with our colonial heroine, Eliza Braun, using guns and lots of explosives to rescue a kidnapped archivist, Wellington Books, from the clutches of a secret organisation (it’s brave of the authors to change the idiom from “all brawn and no brains” to Braun and Books for this pairing). When they return to London, both are disconcerted by being paired together to run the Archives. This is not what a destruction-minded field agent expects but, as you would expect, it all turns out right because she stumbles across the cold files left by her old partner. Her enthusiasm jolts Welly out of his quiet routines and they are soon charging around London in pursuit of the Phoenix Society, a secret organisation that traces its roots back to Roman times. The modern version is, of course, out to bring down the current order for the benefit of all. Except, once you look behind the curtain and see how they actually behave, it leaves you wondering how the mass of people in London would benefit from their ministrations.

Our mismatched pair naturally find there’s more to each other than first meets the eye. The diffident archivist can actually defend himself and Eliza also proves more than a wrecking ball in motion. That’s as we would expect as all books of this type play with stereotypical expectations about the role of women and how straight-laced men should respond. It’s also amusingly obvious one half of the writing team was born in New Zealand and is therefore justifiably positive about the benefits of an upbringing in this remote outpost of the British Commonwealth. The author’s heritage also shows up in the syntax. In an American edition, it’s actually quite pleasing to see many British English spellings and sentence constructions. If it’s supposed to be a period British book, touches like this should be routine.

On balance, Phoenix Rising is a successful first outing and I hope to see more from the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences — I’ve got The Janus Affair on order. It also confirms Pip or Philippa Ballantine as an author to watch. The same sense of humour is on display in this book and it makes the entire reading experience pure fun.

For reviews of books by Philippa Ballantine writing on her own, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Kindred and Wings and
Wrayth.

The Providence Rider by Robert McCammon

The Providence Rider by Robert McCammon (Subterranean Press, 2012) continues the saga of Matthew Corbett, an early version of a private investigator working his trade in 1703. For those of you whose memories are short, this is the year in which Daniel Defoe was convicted of publishing a seditious libel and put in a pillory. Naturally, all his loyal fans turned up and pelted him unmercifully with flowers. Those were the days when star power was edging up to achieve more revolutionary outcomes. Except, of course, this book sees us in the Americas where the Dutch have transferred their title in New Netherland to the British. To wipe out the memory of this foul infestation, we renamed it New York. In such volatile times, there’s always a chance for a young man of talent to make a name for himself as an investigator. Equally, there’s also plenty of opportunity for an International Master Criminal to emerge.

This is the fourth book in the series. It all began with Speaks the Nightbird in which the young Matthew Corbett is clerking for an ageing travelling magistrate. They’ve drawn the short straws of dealing with the case of an alleged witch in the Carolinas. The second book, Queen of Bedlam, sees young Corbett continuing in his legal support role, but moving to New York City where he’s adopted into the problem-solving Herrald Agency. Although it’s a murder mystery, he gets the first clues about Professor Fell. Then comes Mister Slaughter in which the Agency accepts a commission to escort Tyranthus Slaughter from Philadelphia to New York. Now the year is 1703 and Corbett is back in New York. More worryingly, it’s fairly obvious Professor Fell is trying to attract his attention.

In this book, Robert McCammon more or less abandons the idea of problem-solving as equivalent to the role of a detective. Instead the problems are more practical in the sense of survival in a number of situations of imminent death. Although there’s a slowly emerging jigsaw puzzle for him to assemble, that’s not really the point. Instead we have a historical thriller in which Corbett is inadvertently cast into the role of crimefighter, not to say secret agent, except he’s denied the help of a Q to supply advanced technology to help him escape danger. Rather he must depend on the practical assistance of the women around him. Indeed, one of the ironies of this book is that the women as criminals are more intelligent than, and as lethal as, the men, while the female “innocent victims” prove to have more than common or garden spunk to see them through crises.

A photograph in which we look up to Robert McCammon

I admit to being a sucker for a good mystery and I’ve no problem in locating what’s usually a murder in the past. To a significant degree, the mechanism for solving crimes is psychology either in working out who had the right motive to go along with the opportunity, or for inducing a confession. So people are people and haven’t changed that much since they first collapsed on to the couch back in the cave while waiting for their wives to BBQ a dinosaur steak (deliberate sexism and anachronism — history buffs will know the charcoal for BBQs was not invented until the Bronze Age, a few years after the dinosaurs had died out). In most cases, this makes the historical detail little more than window dressing for the definition of the puzzle to be solved. It takes considerable ingenuity to make the period details critical to the solution of the crime. However, when authors make the strategic decision to abandon the mystery element, this leaves us with only the history and adventure. The idea of such books transports me back to my youth when I rapidly ingested H Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Sax Rohmer, Sapper and all the others who churned out adventure novels in which white men fought the good fight against potentially supernatural women, international spies, master criminals, African and Asian villains, and other potentially dangerous folk. Our heroes would whip up the horses, leap into carriages (sometimes of the railway ilk), literally set sail and, in later books, engage in car chases (slow-motion by today’s standards). At the time, it was all very exciting but, looking back, it was pallid stuff.

This is the problem with The Providence Rider which is, sad to say, the weakest of the Corbett novels so far. Let’s take an entirely hypothetical situation. If someone ties up our hero, attaches a heavy weight to his legs and throws him into the river, it can emerge that, as a young man, he studied with Harry Houdini and so can hold his breath a long time while unravelling the knots. Or he can turn his watch around to the rope and, despite the water, fire a laser to cut through it. Except we have no convenient escape artists or science fictional technology to fall back on in 1703 — this also excludes steampunk because, in a strictly historical novel, he can’t have a clockwork chain saw concealed in the heel of his left boot. So his only hope is for someone else to dive in and save him — not the most exciting of rescues. More importantly, it’s humiliating our hero can’t save himself. In other words, by definition, historical thrillers are not terribly thrilling by modern standards unless the realism of watching men pulled out of rivers like drowned rats is your thing. This forces the author to play games like framing the story with a simile about the ocean food chain with plankton at the bottom and sharks at the top, or have a vaguely bloodthirsty Sikh cut off someone’s head with a serrated knife — curious how authors often pick Asia as the source of their bloodthirsty villains.

This leaves us with an interesting conclusion. By any standards, The Providence Rider is beautifully written and, to my not terribly well-informed eye, it looks reasonably accurate in its period detail. More to the point, it’s a natural follow-on from Mister Slaughter so to anyone already hooked and interested in watching Matthew Corbett slowly mature into a top-class problem-solver, this is probably a must-read. But to my old and jaded sensibilities, this is a step off the track in the wrong direction. Although it nicely avoids the dire sexism of Victorian and Edwardian thrillers, the plot involving Professor Fell nevertheless fails to thrill me as it would have done more than fifty years ago. Our Master Criminal is afflicted by the usual intellectual arrogance and is, at times, remarkably gullible. If you have not read the earlier books, Speaks the Nightbird and Queen of Bedlam are terrific and should be read at the earliest possible opportunity.

Reasonably good artwork by Vincent Chong.

For a review of another book by Robert McCammon, see The Five.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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