Title: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
Author: Mark Hodder
Length: 376 pages
Read: Dec 29, 2011 – Jan 23, 2012
Summary: First rate steampunk!
This is certainly not your everyday read, although it’s certainly a good one. Set in 1861, the protagonist is Sir Richard Francis Burton, the explorer, not the actor. The first fifty or so pages feel like engaging historical fiction.
Then all hell breaks loose. In a good way. This version of 1861 isn’t what we read in the history books. It includes steam powered flying chairs, insulting messenger parakeets, genetically engineered werewolves, robotic street cleaners and all sorts of goodies. Most of the characters are famous Victorians, or in this world Albertians given that Victoria was shot to death in 1840 (a real life attempt that was fatal in this alternate history).
The voice of the novel is third person, medium tight and usually riding with Burton. It does, however, jump over to some others occasionally like his side kick the Marquis-de-Sade-loving poet Algernon Swinburne and the title character. The tone is slightly flip, as the inventions and wackiness is just left of possible. Yet things remain consistently period and the characters are well researched and full of era-appropriate dialog, but also clever and engaging.
About midway, the book, already getting weird, goes totally off the the deep end. Enter Spring-Heeled Jack, crazy time traveler, and a host of steampunk altered villains including a double-brain grafted Charles Darwin and an Iron Golemized Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But this zaniness only makes the novel better. I’m reminded of one of my all time favorites, The Anubis Gates, but TSAOSHJ is less magical, more grounded in technology.
Bravo! This book really shows off tremendous world building and research while remaining fast paced and easy to read. If it has anything that holds it back from being a complete classic, it’s that the characters, while well developed, don’t really illicit any significant pathos. Things are just a little too distant and weird for that. It’s not a huge book, and Hodder crams in an enormously distinct world, so it’s no surprise this isn’t a character study. Still, I do feel that the complex character of Burton was well profiled, almost like in a good biography. Impressive.
I read this right after putting down another steampunk book, Clockwork Angel, just 20% in. Wow, what a difference. Both are set in alternate 19th century Londons, but other than a couple random “period words,” CA feels exactly the same as the author’s contemporary paranormal YA, with all its forced faux-romance. TSAOSHJ, on the other hand, is an adult book, and makes use of one’s babbage augmented, steam-powered, glass jar encased, cybernetic brain.