Pyr, 2010, 373 pages
Sir Richard Francis Burton: explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead. Algernon Charles Swinburne: unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin! They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End. Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age - and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist at all!
One of my favorite poems is The Garden of Proserpine, by Algernon Charles Swinburne. So I was kind of intrigued to see a book that combines Swinburne, the famous multi-lingual explorer Richard Burton, and the Victorian urban legend Spring Heeled Jack.
I don't quite get the appeal of the "steampunk" genre. It mostly seems to be for people with an unhealthy fascination with corsets, and who like mixing Sherlock Holmes with science fiction. I guess there's also the Girl Genius crowd (sorry, I just never got into GG).
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, however, is a true science fiction novel, albeit definitely in the steampunk sub-genre. It also shows a certain respect for history. After wringing its neck. Almost all the characters in this novel are historical figures, and the history is based on real events. The attempted assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840 by a mentally disturbed young man named Edward Oxford. The feud between Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke, egged on by Laurence Oliphant. The urban legend of Spring Heeled Jack, a diabolical figure who leaped over rooftops and assaulted random women all over England, and Henry Beresford, the "Mad Marquess" of Waterford, who was suspected of being Spring Heeled Jack.
Mark Hodder did a brilliant job of taking all these figures and spinning a bizarre alternate history out of them. Thanks to the interference of an incompetent time traveler, Queen Victoria dies in 1840, and the world we know is transformed into one where geneticists create genetically engineered animals like messenger parakeets (which deliver their messages accompanied by obscenities) and dust-eating cats to clean houses, Technologists have created litter-crabs, motorized horse carriages, ornithopters, and flying trains, and Rakes and Libertines seek to live out De Sade fantasies.
Sir Richard Francis Burton has a run-in with Spring Heeled Jack, which puts him on a collision course with the bungling time traveler and his quest to make the world right again. Except that the world Burton knows is the "right" one, from his point of view. Burton's sidekick is the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, a naive fop with masochistic proclivities who wants to find out what adventure and risking your life is really about. The two of them go on a quest through Albertan England, initially to track down the sinister Spring Heeled Jack and put an end to his attacks on seemingly random women, but eventually to stop a much larger conspiracy.
I really appreciated the fact that Hodder seemed to do his homework: his characters all seem to be more or less congruent with the real-world versions (positing the world in which he places them). Algernon Swinburne really was a poncy little twerp who reportedly liked a good caning. Sir Richard Francis Burton really did go all the places and do all the things he did in the novel. (Prior to, that is.) His friendship with Swinburne is probably fictitious, and his powers of mesmerism certainly are, and there are a few historical figures who might like to sue Mark Hodder for defamation of character if they were still alive. But I loved all the other cameos, from Oscar Wilde as a young newspaperboy tossing off aphorisms to [Spoiler (click to open)]Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale as the villains.
The use of historical figures was well done. The writing was very characteristic of a debut novel: over-repetition of phrases, long expository monologues by the bad guys for the benefit of conveniently eavesdropping heroes, and the connection between changing history and the world turning into a steampunk fantasy just has to be accepted on faith. However, none of it was boring.
Have you read The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack?
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Verdict: As a genre overrun by trend-chasers and relabeled paranormal romances, "steampunk" generally does little for me. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a genuinely creative entry in the field that develops an alternate history to explain how we wound up with clockworks and genetically engineered were-leopards, and basing the story on actual historical personages and events, operating in the margins of speculation and interpretation. The writing could be better, but the story is fantastic, and made me want to check out the rest of the series.
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