CBRIII Maneuver #13 – The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
Profile: Steampunk, Speculative Fiction, Alternate History
Summary: From the back of the book, “Sir Richard Francis Burton. An explorer, a linguist, a scholar, and a swordsman. His reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead. Algernon Charles Swinburne. A promising young poet, a thrill-seeker, and a follower of the Marquis de Sade. For him 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 animas to provide unpaid labor; Libertines opposed 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!
After Action Report:
The only reason you can’t hear me giggling like a lifetime Bedlamite right now is because I accidentally corrupted the recording I made while I was finishing The Strange Affair. Hodder’s alternate history of the early years of Victorian England is the best iteration of the modern penny dreadful I’ve ever read. It doesn’t set out be funny, but the final product is so completely over the top that it’s hard not to laugh at the villainous caricatures and bizarre steampunk contraptions. At the same time, there’s a decent adventure story here, and some very interesting pseudoscience behind the crazy. And the history is just accurate enough to prompt further exploration, which is exactly what alternate history should be.
The events of Spring Heeled Jack come fast and furious. Set in the slightly unrecognizable London of 1861, where the peasoup fogs are more coal exhaust than real fog, and giant horses and swans are accepted forms of transportation. The action jumps from Richard Burton’s unresolved conflict with his former partner John Hanning Speke to a bizarre confrontation with a man in a fish-scale suit with spring-stilts. And it just gets better from there. Hired by the Prime Minister, Burton is charged with unraveling the mysteries of disappearing chimney sweeps, the disturbing Spring Heeled Jack and even the assassination of Queen Victoria.
Hodder is quite skilled at weaving a cohesive story out of history, fantasy and insanity; however, he may have taken on a few too many concepts here. Burton’s London is rife with werewolves, robots and some of the darkest takes on steampunk I’ve seen. It’s a world where technological development has far outstripped the ability of the populace to deal with it. The reaction of the populace is a numb acceptance of each new marvel, without any real thought to the wider ramifications. There’s a real message here, but it gets lost in the story as it careens from plot point to disconnected plot point. There is a strong attempt to pull every mystery together in the end, but there are still a number of threads that get left on the floor, explained, but unresolved.
Having picked my nits, I will say that the end product is still really enjoyable. The main plot line is wonderful, from concept to conclusion, and sets up this darkly comic alternate history for Hodder to play with in the sequels. Perhaps the best part of the entire novel is the post script where the author explains the real history under his fantasy, and why the changes he’s made to the past have accelerated the timeline. The only piece here that feels really out of place is the character of Algernon Swinburne. I’m really not clear on why, of all the brilliant literary figures of the late 1800s, Hodder picked Swinburne to be the comic foil to Burton. Hell, Oscar Wilde is in the book, and despite being relegated to a miniscule role, is still much more interesting than Swinburne.
Not for the first time this Cannonball, I’m forced to excuse some of the failings of a book because it’s the author’s first time at bat. I’ve already picked up my copy of Spring Heeled Jack’s sequel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, which should be a fairly strong recommendation in and of itself, but I have faith that Hodder will improve with time and experience.