Published: September 2010
ISBN: 978-1616142407Reviewed by Earl Davis
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.
In 1864, Jules Verne published his first novel laying the groundwork for the subgenre affectionately referred to as “Steampunk” by its loyal disciples. Steampunk, once confined to basements, garages and science fiction conventions, can now be found in blockbuster films and network television. Like vampires, zombies and werewolves Steampunk is now main stream.
Fear not though! Mark Hodder’s debut novel harkens back to those glory days of yore. It is a love letter to every lady that ever slipped out of her modern life and into a bustle dress. It winks and nods at the gentleman who has traded his tracksuit for a stovepipe hat and cane sword.
Imagine a group of friends sitting around one evening chatting about nothing in particular, when someone pipes up and says, “I’m thinking about writing a Steam Punk novel”. With that simple statement the flood gates open; tropes and plot points, settings and character sweep the participants along the rapids. Then out of nowhere, a pre-teen daughter walks through the room and says “What about werewolves?” A novel is born.
In the hands of a lesser writer, juggling so many ideas at once could easily spell disaster. It’s not hard to imagine this novel becoming a shapeless, unreadable mess. Hoddor avoids the trap and maintains a steady hand guiding the reader along. At times, he is less a novelist and more like the conductor of a symphony ensuring that each section moves in time.
Not content to tell merely a science fiction tale, he wraps it in the shell of a grand adventure and mystery the likes of which Sherlock Holmes and Auguste Dupin would admire. Heavy handed exposition and lengthy description, often necessities in science fiction, are interspersed with swordplay, helicopter chases and enough intrigue to keep the beats moving forward at a brisk pace.
Oscar Wilde, Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Laurence Oliphant, Edward Oxford, and many other notable figures from the Victorian era all move in and out of the narrative affecting the protagonists Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne, who are also famous Englishmen of the period. Burton is the classic adventure hero, an educated man and explorer, capable of violence when it is necessary. While he is a compelling hero, the character suffers from being one sided; focused solely on the needs of the mission at hand.
Burton’s partner in this adventure, Swinbourne, is a far more dynamic character and acts as a much needed support for the static Burton. Not merely content to be a “Watson”, Swinbourne’s enthusiasm and debauchery creates his own spotlight. In fact, it is Watson’s own masochism (he constantly allies himself with a know-it-all who chides and embarrasses him) that draws the greatest parallel to Swinbourne who is an acknowledged and proud follower of De Sade. Swinbourne’s delight and pleasure involving the infliction of pain add a unique flavor to scenes that would otherwise be throw-away material.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is well worth the cover price. It teases and titillates and like a good lover leaves you spent, satisfied and waiting anxiously for more. Hodder has created high expectations with this novel and I sincerely hope that his sophomore effort lives up to his potential.
This is a novel for any adult reader. It stands as proof that there is quality and unique writing still going on out there in the ether. I whole heartedly recommend its purchase.
4 out of 5 stars