Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment


The Executioner’s Heart by George Mann (Tor, 2013) is the fourth in the series featuring Newbury & Hobbes, i.e. Sir Maurice Newbury and his assistant Veronica Hobbes. Those of you familiar with the reviewing style will know I never stoop to simplistic headlining. So this is not a steampunk Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery thriller. Its rather more subtle than that. The temptation to see this as following in the footsteps of Arthur Conan Doyle flows from the decision to set these stories in a version of Victorian England about the same time as the Great Detective ruled the fictional waves from Baker Street. So this author has an investigator who is not averse to abusing the poppy, tobacco and absinthe, lurking in a part of London. Because all those who aspire to investigative greatness need an assistant, he’s joined in his endeavours by a spunky woman who fights and shoots in the best female style (think Elementary which applies the same logic to produce a so far platonic pairing for an explicit Holmes and Watson).


If Victorian science is going to get bent out of shape, it’s not unnatural that there would be social change. Some move towards gender equality is therefore to be expected. Yet, strangely, that has not happened in the broader society described here. Even when Veronica is recognised as in immediate danger and the best course of action would be for her to occupy the same house as Sir Maurice, they all worry about what such a move would do to her reputation. This is a slight dissonance, almost an anachronism. In the real world, the watershed Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 had begun to dismantle the patriarchal assumption that women could not own property or keep the money they earned. If an author shows technology driving change in everyday life at an ever faster rate, why is this not also destablising the culture? With a Queen on the throne and women working as spies and in other capacities representing the interests of the Crown, greater freedom than allowed in 1882 would seem inevitable. There would also be significant impacts arising from the adoption of technology into industry. There would be new jobs to learn requiring an improvement in the education service, and many old jobs would be eliminated by automation leading to unemployment and greater poverty. So this book is almost exclusively upper class and dominated by white men (spunky sidekicks notwithstanding), and the culture is set is aspic without regard to the environment in which it has been preserved.

George Mann

George Mann


Of course, this is unfair. I have started on the fourth book in the series. The social dynamics may be explored in the earlier books. So what does the book actually offer? Well, in genre terms, our investigator blurs the line between conventional investigator and occult detective. Here the primary focus is on a serial killer whose signature is cracking open the rib cage and extracting the hearts of her victims as trophies, and the activities of German spies intent on stealing the basis of lasers as a “death beam” weapon. Yet the supernatural is never far away. In the last book, our duo rescued Amelia, Veronica’s psychic sister. Because he’s been able to steal a book of magic from the local Cabal, Sir Maurice is able to treat her, but the price is that he has now taken on the burden of her ability as a seer. They both now dream of the titular Executioner and see Veronica to be at risk.


As steampunk, there’s a range of technology emerging from the expected automobiles, airships and clockwork automatons, to genetic manipulation, cloning and steps towards prolonging life. But interestingly, technology on its own is shown as inadequate to make the required progress at the speed desired. Hence, the Executioner has been converted into a form of cyborg by the joint application of the mechanical and the supernatural. The heart itself may be clockwork, but the runes and other symbols inlaid into her flesh in ink and precious metals signify a different form of partnership to prolong her life. Just as the personality of the woman transformed undergoes a dramatic change, so the body of Queen Victoria is being sustained by machines while her mind is allowed to age without intervention. This may make her appear less acute as leader. Hence her son, Edward Albert, Prince of Wales and interested factions in government are positively investigating whether the Queen is actually fit to rule.


All this gives the author the chance to write something really exciting and, at times, there are some genuinely pleasing set-pieces with dark hints as to other forces at work. But it does not quite cohere. The reason? I think there are two problems. The first is the steampunk elements seem incidental rather than integrated into the social fabric being described. For example, the menagerie constructs and predatory birds are just there for a brief effect and as props in the generally excellent fight scene that follows. There’s no attempt to explore how such innovations might affect society. Even the Executioner as a walking-talking embodiment of the steampunk trope fails because supernatural powers keep her body preserved as a young, athletic woman as the decades go by. Yet the fantasy side of the novel is also peripheral. Instead of the supernatural given full prominence, this is more a political thriller with an investigative duo who are rather more reactive and positive in solving the case(s). Which, of course points to the second problem. The book is promising to give us a Holmesian detective but, apart from lolling around in a drugged state, there’s very little to show this character draws on the Conan Doyle canon. Indeed, Sir Maurice doesn’t really solve the Executioner case. He has to be told who she is and others work out where she’s hiding. Worse, in structural terms, we have a prologue that removes much of the potential suspense. That it happens to be very well written does not excuse the loss of suspense when Veronica finally decides to go to “the” address. So we end up with a scattergun of different genre tropes fired into the book and, because none of them are fully exploited, The Executioner’s Heart ends up slightly underwhelming. This is not to deny there are some excellent moments. But this is a sum of parts novel, not a great whole. Perhaps that’s the fate of all books numbered four in a projected sequence of six.


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


The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

The Osiris Curse

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley (Pyr, 2013) Tweed & Nightingale Adventure 2 should have a young adult health warning on the cover. In all innocence, I pick up the next book from the pile and discover myself cast adrift in a dumbed down science fantasy, patronisingly aimed at the young. This is Sherlock Holmes meets Hyperborean lizards from a Pellucidar underworld who threaten to destroy the human world because we have inadvertently been destroying the underground environment in our search for additional energy sources. Ah ha, another version of Sherlock Holmes and a story somewhat adjacent to the ingenious manga, anime and film series Dectective Conan by Gosho Aoyama (because someone thought this might be confused with that barbarian fellow, the series was renamed Case Closed to avoid distressing Robert E Howard fans who might not be able to understand the jacket artwork on the manga or the words used to describe the television and cinema versions). The hook for the Japanese story is that our brilliant amateur detective is forced to take an experimental poison but, instead of killing him, it reverts him to childhood stature which is actually a convenient “disguise” because it enables him to access places and talk to people who underestimate him. Note his dependence on Rachel Moore and, to some extent, Amy Yoshida — females of the species. In this book series, the mind of Sherlock Holmes is salvaged after his demise at Reichenbach Falls and relocated to a cloned body, then nine months old in chronological age. At that point in cranial development, the cloned body was not able to absorb Holmes’ memories, just most of his intellect, so the emergent young man is an erratic detective genius. He’s “adopted” by Barnaby Tweed, is christened Sebastian Tweed and partnered with Octavia Nightingale.

Paul Crilley

Paul Crilley

So our young detective with female sidekick takes on the role of defender of the British Empire which is full of stupid adults with the possible exception of Queen Victoria who puts in a cameo appearance at the end. The setting is very strongly located in a steampunk era. Under Queen Victoria’s benign rule, Babbage has perfected the difference engine, Tesla has done just wonderful things with electricity, and so on. Looking around the streets, we have both steam- and electric-powered conveyances. Large robots are slowly finding acceptance in heavy industry and on the docks to do the heavy dirty work, while “android” robots act as house servants. And in the air, ornithopters and hydrogen airships with electric engines driving turbines rule. There’s also a grey area in which spiritualism and a more general interest in the practical side of the medium’s experience has led to the capture and manipulation of “souls”. In Tweed’s case, the mind was placed into a cloned body, but they can also be placed in bottles and inserted into machinery. That gets around the programming problem since oral instructions can then be given. Even H G Wells comes into play as the inventor of an invisibility cloak (and time machine). There’s not a single original element on display nor, in the world building, is there any any sign of a unique version of Victorian steampunk emerging. It’s all very generic (as you might expect from a YA title — teen readers are not expected to know what else has been written in this field, nor to care for any particular logic in its execution).

There’s some minor angst from our young hero. He’s feeling like a cuckoo in the nest, like someone who doesn’t quite fit into this world (and who can blame him for that assessment of his situation). Naturally, there are romantic twinges in the relationship between our two heroes and some experimental osculation at the end as acceptance of the consequences of the male/female thing is completed. As to the plot, it’s a mishmash of espionage adventure tropes being forced into Edgar Rice Burroughs directions with a vague attempt at Sherlock Holmesian detective analysis thrown into the works. It’s all rather embarrassingly bad for someone like me to read. I suppose it might be acceptable for ten to twelve year-olds who have never read anything intelligent in the steampunk subgenre to start off their reading careers but, to be honest, I suspect The Osiris Curse is more likely to drive them away.

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

The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

June 21, 2013 2 comments

Secret Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder

There’s real skill required to write a series. Far more than most people realise. Let’s say the author has signed a three-book deal. That ties him or her to the agreed formula which, in most cases, will be both a group of characters and a particular setting. So, for example, Miss Marple lives in St Mary Mead and, although she’s wont to travel around a little, the basis of her investigative style is drawn from her observation of life in the village. That way, even when she’s on holiday in the West Indies, she can remember what the butcher did to the baker’s assistant that so upset the candlestick maker. In other words, there’s a core magic formula that, after the first few books, turned the remainder into must-haves for the loyal fans. To depart from this formula is to lose the fans. But to do nothing more than repeat the formula will also lose the fans through boredom. There has to be development to keep the core ideas interesting. Hence even Miss Marple must go on holiday.

So, after a highly successful opening set of three, we’re back with The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2013) which is the first in a new three-book deal featuring Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne in a steampunk version of Victorian England which, appropriately enough, began with the assassination of Queen Victoria. If you’re proposing to derail readers into an alternate history, killing off the titular queen for the age is the best possible starting point. The magic of the first book lies in its exuberance. There’s not a page goes by without some new idea or sly joke. As debut novels go, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the best. However, in this moment of heady success, there’s a problem. Once you’ve described the setting and cracked all your best jokes, you have to find something new to write about. Fortunately, the plot of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is terrific and kept everything moving along nicely even though the repetition of some of the jokes was wearing very thin towards the end. This led us into Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon which opened the door into some very interesting and more serious possibilities. As I said during that review, “. . .an inventive mind could devise a way into a different future. It will be interesting to see whether Pyr offers us the chance to see it unfold.” So my thanks to Pyr for renewing the book deal. This proves to be a particularly ingenious way of developing the plot.

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Mark Hodder anonymous in Spain

Notice my reference to the plot. All the humour that characterised the first in the series has gone. This is altogether darker with the death of an important character, albeit not one we see too often. We’re nevertheless aware of this individual’s significance throughout. The key to understanding just how ingenious the plot lies in the need for all time travel books to follow strict logic. With the death of Queen Victoria in the first novel being caused by a time traveller, we’ve been following the cause and effect of the different changes in history as they occur. At the end of the last book, the situation had grown more complex as a new player entered the game and tried to destabilise the new version of history. With that threat defeated, Burton was left. . . Well that always was the question. Just where was Burton left?

At this point, I’m going to get a little vague because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this book. I emphasise that this is a direct continuation of the last trilogy and, although you might enjoy this as a standalone, you will not appreciate just how good it is unless you’ve read the other three in order. This is a serial, not a series of standalones in the same place with the same characters. This time, we’re into Bram Stoker land (appropriately young Bram is a character) with the arrival of a vampire-like force by sea. This time, the ship crashes on to the rocks of Anglesey during a terrible storm with the captain lashed to the wheel and all the crew and passengers (bar one, of course) dead on arrival. This gives us a broad supernatural framework on which to build our multiverse plot. Yes, that’s right. All the messing around in time has been multiplying the branches except there’s one common feature. Sooner or later, there’s a major war. Those of you with some grasp of history will recall our First World War occupied the years 1914 to 1918. In different timelines, this conflict comes at different times but it always happens. However, in this timeline, under the guidance of Abdu El Yezdi, the British have been moving towards a political rapprochement with Germany, therefore making war less inevitable. So the big questions for Burton are to identify Abdu El Yezdi, to explain how he has been giving such good advice, and to find him — sadly this fount of wisdom has stopped transmitting thereby leaving the British government up a creek wondering where their paddle has gone.

We still have some of the steampunk but most of the more extravagant technological innovation has gone in this timeline. There’s also slightly less political discussion, leaving more time for this rather pleasing blend of Victorian/Edwardian style adventure to be updated for modern sensibilities. Putting all this together, The Secret of Abdu El Yezdi is a wonderful continuation of the earlier trilogy, i.e. you really should have read the others in order before coming to this.

Once again the jacket artwork by Jon Sullivan is magnificent.

For reviews of the other four books, see:
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
The Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
The Return of the Discontinued Man
There are also two standalones called:
A Red Sun Also Rises
Sexton Blake and the Silent Thunder Caper.

And for those who enjoy a little nostalgia, the website run by Mark Hodder celebrating Sexton Blake is worth a visit.

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

In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell

June 16, 2013 2 comments

In Thunder Forged

There are times when I find Wikipedia a real boon. Since I’m a living dinosaur and know nothing of the real world around me occupied by the “young”, I need a culturally savvy compendium of current wisdom. This digital encyclopaedia, written largely by the young for the young, is an indispensable resource when it comes to phenomena like Warmachine and Iron Kingdoms. I now have the inside dope on these fantasy role-playing games from Privateer Press. So here we have the first of a trilogy set in this RPG universe. In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2013) The Fall of Llael: Book One and, although references are made to dwarves, this is an entirely human story albeit, given the fantasy milieu, some of these humans are sorcerers and mages. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I never research a book until after I’ve read it and so I’m able to report that any prior knowledge of the games is irrelevant to enjoying this book. It’s completely free-standing and, in simple terms, a very slick piece of writing from an author previously unknown to me.

So where are we with this book? This is another of these genre-busting efforts that happily ranges over boundary lines like they were designed to be ignored. Indeed, part of the joy in reading this is that the author really doesn’t care what expectations we might come with, he just writes a damn fine adventure with espionage sitting alongside and then merging with military fiction with a high fantasy context and steampunk weaponry allied with sword and sorcery. Sorry, that’s actually misleading. I should have written “pistols and sorcery” in a blend I can’t recall seeing anywhere else. It’s a very ingenious variation on the theme and worth exploring some more. When you roll it all together, this is a real page turner that doesn’t pause for breath until it reaches the dramatic ending of “Round One” with survivors variously placed waiting for the start of “Round Two”. When you have time to look back and think about it all, the conventional espionage and military manoeuvres make perfect sense so long as you ignore all the weirdness surrounding the steampunk weaponry. And I’m not joking when I tell you these machines are weird.

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

Rather than burden you with silly names to remember, let’s just say the aggressors, and therefore assumed bad guys, have both freestanding mechanical equipment and an exoskeleton suit that enhances the operator’s physical strength and gives real firepower. The freestanding equipment is built for size and strength in both offence and defence. The good guys have developed a range of freestanding mechanical equipment that has much greater mobility but sacrifices defence in weaker armour. The theory is that the faster moving equipment outmanoeuvres the slower larger equipment and wins by multiple hits rather than one major blow. Adding to the mechanical equipment we also have weapons carried by knights on horseback based on electricity. Think of these lances as lightning projectors. The interesting and unexplained mechanical technology is coal-driven and high maintenance. But it also seems to be semi-autonomous. I’m assuming there are Babbage type controls, enhanced by sorcery, that gives these machines varying degrees of “intelligence”. It’s all fun so long as you don’t stop to think about it.

The plot revolves around the good guys’ attempt to enhance their weaponry by subcontracting the work to independent contractors. They took all the usual precautions of dividing the work up so that no one contractor could get a feel for what their “part” did in the whole assembly. Unfortunately, a traitor managed to assemble all the different bits into one blueprint and now holds it for auction between the two major players. Spies from both sides converge to try to steal the blueprint while the bad guys launch a parallel military assault to prevent reinforcements coming in. This leaves a small number of both trained spies and military personnel unexpectedly pitched into the fray to fight it out. The results are genuinely exciting.

So the book is beautifully written in a stripped down, no-nonsense style that blasts us through the action. It’s also innovative and, perhaps even more importantly in these modern days, gender blind. This human society values people for the contribution they can actually make and accepts that contribution without prejudices getting in the way. That means we have men and women fighting side by side without worrying too much about issues of equality. If they’re good enough to be in the army or have been through the training to become spies, they are respected and left to get on with their jobs. This is pleasingly refreshing. This makes In Thunder Forged very entertaining and I look forward to the next in the series.

For a review of a collection by Ari Marmell, see Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror.

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

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest


The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest (The Clockwork Century Volume 5) demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a longer running series. When it’s new, everyone can be genuinely excited by the novelty of the ideas and the loving craft that has gone into realising those ideas on paper. Those who follow the genre will know Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is no mean achievement. It signals a book that has striven to reach the pinnacles and only just fallen short. I think there were three reasons for its success in 2009. The first was the resurgence of steampunk in the oughties had not produced the greatest of works. This novel had a depth of invention that none of the others had achieved. The mechanics of survival in the gas-infected Seattle were beautifully worked out. Add in the claustrophobic atmosphere and the flesh-eating rotters, and you had a winner. The next three books see the author ringing the changes to keep the ideas fresh. Although there was some overlap in the characters, each novel or novella featured a different set of technological innovation. Despite this braveness in continually expanding the extent of the alternate history and looking in more detail at developments in the dirigibles, steam-power generally and submarines, I had the sense the series was slowly running out of steam. This is confirmed by the latest book’s return to Seattle. I think this was a fundamental mistake.

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Cherie Priest with the backing of flowers

Assessing the “big picture”, there were fascinating possibilities in moving up to proper authorial omniscience and looking squarely at the broader conflict between the Northern and Southern states with Texas almost neutral. We’ve only viewed this version of the Civil War tangentially. There have been mere glimpses of the politics of the conflict and of the various attempts to resolve the core disputes and produce peace. Yet instead of helping us understand the context for this war, we revert to a Young Adult format rerun of Seattle with tedious results. This time, young Rector Sherman reaches his eighteenth birthday and gets thrown out of the orphanage. Driven by guilt that he might have been responsible for the death of Zeke, he decides to enter the city and try to lay the ghost. It should be said the boy is a fairly hopeless sap addict and not wholly rational when he takes this decision. But, as is always the case with books like this, once the primary protagonist has committed himself to the roll of the dice, you have to go with it.

Thereafter, we have all the faults of a YA approach holding this book back plus a genuinely silly introduction. Dealing with the latter first, about a third of the way through the book, I decided there must be a zoo within the walls or just outside, and one or more orangutans had escaped and entered the city. Boy was I barking up the wrong tree! You see I’d thought the essence of steampunk was some degree of realism and not outright fantasy horror. Even the author’s decision might have been defensible if it had been scary. But when Captain Cly can restrain it. . . Even allowing for the gas weakening this usually unstoppable force of nature, this plot element is a non-starter except in a YA novel that’s pulling its punches. Now add in one of the boys can sooth the savage beast. Well that’s what you get when you mix youngsters with the supernatural. They’re all so dim, wandering around the place as if they were invulnerable. After all, the rotters have either been carefully shepherded from the city or pulled to pieces by the newcomer(s). That reduces the danger factor to an effective zero level. So they can do their Famous Five freelance crime-solving act with only a few relatively ineffective adult drug dealers to worry about. It’s a sadly inadequate contribution to a reasonably entertaining series. Even the steampunk element is glossed over. Rather than repeat all the descriptions from the earlier Boneshaker, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of underground and how to get around safely.

So no matter how innovative and successful the first two books in this series, this is one to avoid unless you are reading as a committed fan. I hate to say it but The Inexplicables is terrible.


For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still

Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum

automatic woman

Automatic Woman by Nathan L. Yocum (Curiosity Quills Press, 2012) forces me to ask the ultimately paradoxical question. To what extent should a fantasy be realistic? Obviously if the action is set in Fairyland with an attack upon Titania by some vampires passing through on their way to an urban setting, there’s no need for anyone to speak in a particular way or for Elvish Magic Johnson to be able to hit more home runs after his retirement from basketball. Everything can be the product of an imagination allowed free rein. But suppose the fantasy is set in a real place and features historically verified individuals? Well this is where the paradox comes in. In theory, fantasy is the polar opposite of realism. It sets out to describe events which are or were impossible in our version of reality. A trope now establishing itself as routine introduces anachronistic technology to history. Set in Victorian England, we’re assailed by steampunk stories of clockwork and steam-powered robots and computers. Indeed, even with the assistance of modern technology, much of what we see described is impossible. Perhaps that’s actually the point of these stories: to introduce the impossible and so challenge our view of history. Perhaps Babbage could have succeeded in 1822 if the people in power had funded him. Sorry, Babbage did build his machine which was a state secret. It was later updated to become Colossus, used at Bletchley Park to win World War II. Except isn’t that science fiction? Ah it’s so difficult to get a precise grasp of this slippery question. Anyway, the point of all this is to decide whether a story claiming to be set in London in 1888 should be even remotely realistic.

In this book, we have a steampunk version of Pygmalion. You remember him, a sculptor who fell in love with a statue. Venus then granted the man’s wish and allowed the statue to come to life. They married and had a son — the perfect proof that she’d become a real woman. We should also note Hephaestus made automata to help out in his workshops, but he was semi-divine so that’s just fantasy. Back to the current book. A lonely scientist makes a troop of ballet dancers but he invests such creativity and love in the prima ballerina that she becomes something more than just gears and drive shafts. While this is not canonical Pygmalion because the machine does not become flesh, it does begin to exhibit symptoms of independent thought. It’s the AI gaining sentience trope borrowed from science fiction. In the cinema, it’s potentially the dance scene from Metropolis (1927) where the artificial Maria captivates the most important men of the city in their lust. In this work, the engineer was secretly supported by Charles Darwin who believed the creation of artificial intelligence was the first step towards achieving immortality. Needless to say, there’s an evil nemesis lurking in the background who will stop at nothing to obtain the secret of the “automatic woman” and it’s for our hero to run interference so that those working for Darwin can repair the “woman” and enable her to achieve her potential. Except, of course, the nemesis takes hostages and requires our hero to acquire the secrets of the “woman”. Ah how awkward it is to be caught in the middle. Perhaps that signals the need to meet Rasputin and Bram Stoker, and take a whistle-stop tour through the laws of King Hammurabi of Babylonia and a trip round Europe by train and dirigible.

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

Nathan L. Yocum the man not the machine

The strength and weakness of this book is the open-ended approach to the plot. As a first-person narrative, we’re pitched into our hero describing how he came to be lying unconscious next to the body of the scientist who made the prima ballerina. Thereafter events just follow on. I could say it’s all great fun as if that’s a way of forgiving potential lapses. There are two fairly serious problems for me as a reader. The first is that what’s presented as a first-person narrative in British English is anything but. This is clearly a book written by an American. Is this a fatal problem? Not a bit. I find much of it amusing. Since almost all the readers for this book will be Americans, they will not appreciate how far from the mark the arrow falls. They will almost certainly find the language accessible to their modern sensibilities. The second problem is the almost total lack of realism in the descriptions of London and Oxford. Having just read a meticulously recreated Victorian London adventure by James P Blaylock, I’m only too aware of how threadbare this is. But, again, the point of books like this is not to produce historical accuracy. We’re here for the steampunk adventure with a few facts everyone will recognize as pegs on which to hang the plot. Never let a few facts stand in the way of a good story, these authors cry as they ride roughshod over the facts, hopefully remembering Mark Twain was a damn fine author.

I can’t help but notice anachronisms — it’s in my blood — so when Arthur Conan Doyle appears on the scene, takes out a syringe and pumps our hero full of penicillin, I tend to think, “Hmmm. This book is set in 1888 and the antibiotic was not discovered until 1928. What a pleasing coincidence of 8s.” There’s also some interesting discussion on evolution that certainly would not have been rehearsed in Victorian times. None of these things need concern us. Automatic Woman has its moments and rides quickly to an ending that would permit further adventures. There are fights, exchanges of gunfire and explosions. As far as it goes, it’s good of its type.

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

The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock

February 16, 2013 4 comments


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.

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