Archive for the ‘Alternative History’ Category

 

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This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

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 The second Thursday Next book picks up immediately after the end of The Eyre Affair and is a fun and joyful thing! A bit of lovely fluff: light, quick and just fun. 

It does perhaps suffer from its role in the series: The Eyre Affair was pretty self-contained; it has spawned a series of – I don’t know how many – books. This book feels like a bridge between a stand-alone and the series. It expands the basic concept of entering into and exiting a book but, whereas the first book required a device to do so, it has become an innate ability by this one.  Yes, there were moments in the first which prepared you for this, but it’s a huge extension of the scope of the narrative. 

The plot takes a little while to get going and feels almost secondary to the concept. A copy of the lost Shakespeare play is discovered; the villainous mega-corporation continue to be, well, villainous; a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences nearly kill Thursday. But don’t. And, almost as an afterthought, the world’s coming to an end. No one seems terribly concerned about that: it just hangs there in the plot. Mentioned occasionally. 

Losses accrue, and they are quite heartfelt, to be honest. But there’s a sneaky suspicion that it’s all rather reversible. In a universe where dodos and Neanderthals and mammoths have been recreated, and extinctions reversed, an individual death seems less weighty than it should somehow. 

Anyway, the heart of the book is The Library: a metaphysical collection of all the books that are, were, will be or might have been written are. And the interchange, I suppose, between fictional and real worlds. A transmetaphorical border control, if you like. Those who can read themselves into books can access the library and vice versa. And from the library, you or your fictional friend could pop into any written world. Imagine holiday img in Hamlet‘s Elsinore or sharing a pot of tea with Sherlock Holmes, Magwitch or Mina Harker. 

Or being partnered with the somewhat cantankerous and redoubtable Miss Havisham to police the fictional worlds. 

Is this a metaphysical exploration of the boundaries of the real and fictional worlds, exploring the impact of both on the other and the vexing question of identity? No. Not at all. It’s fun and quirky and – as a reader – somewhat self-indulgent but… to be honest… what’s wrong with that?

Enjoy!

  Oh I’m in two minds about this book. 

I so wanted to like it.  A alternate history world in which the borders between reality and books is flexible and malleable. Who would love to pop to Wuthering Heights for a cup of tea with Nelly Dean? Or stroll through the 100 Acre Wood? Or play hide-and-seek in the Garden of Eden (who’s going to find you behind that apple tree?) for an afternoon? 

You could pop into Fifty Shades and inform Ms. Steele what consent actually means.

And you have to dodge Baconians on the street seeking to convert your views on Shakespeare’s authorship. A world where entertainment includes coin-fed Shakespearean soliloquy dispensers and wholly audience-participation Shakespeare plays with the atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 

And you can own dodos in Fforde’s world. I mean, dodos!  Because genetic splicing is a thing. 

And time travel. 

And vampires and werewolves. 

I’m sure many people would find the range of alternative structures thrown into this mix quirky or witty – which each one is individually – I mean, book worms which crawl around and eat prepositions and excrete apostrophes or, if they’re stressed, capitalisation – the range of ideas, concepts and conceits thrown in, to me, felt confused. Almost as if Fforde wrote himself into plot holes and had to go back to insert a random new feature in order to provide him with a way out. Or woke up with an idea and the words “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if…” on his lips. 

What we’re presented with is essentially a crime caper: the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen and Thursday Next is called in to investigate. We discover increasingly shady departments of the Special Ops forces of which Next is a member; the sinister Goliath corporation manipulating the investigation, a subplot involving Next’s love life and her time in the Crimean War. 

In addition to the confused gamut of tropes, there were more issues which irked me, as a writer myself. 

[It is a new thing to self-identify as a writer for me… but it felt lovely saying it!]

The other issues. Oh yes. For a book so aware of the limitations of the first person narrative (it actual is a significant plot device towards the end, the fact that Jane Eyre is itself first person), the novel failed to either give Thursday a convincing narrative voice or to remain in its own first person narrative. We see numerous scenes from outside Thursday’s point of view: whole chapters took place miles away from Thursday; some chapters alternated from Thursday’s and an omniscient narrative point of view within the chapter. 

And to have your first-person narrator randomly look at herself in a mirror just to describe her for the reader? Really?! I’d expect that from kids at school. What was even the point to tell me that she was 

somewhat ordinary features…. Her hair was a plain mousey colour and of medium length …

What do I learn of her from that? Really? Were her looks a plot point? No. 

And sometimes Fforde did try. After a botched arrest attempt, we learn what happened from Thursday’s interview with internal affairs. That’s okay. That’s a good idea: you can create the emotion of the protagonist directly; you can deliver half-truths and dramatic irony and unreliable narrators. Or, you can do what Fforde does, and simply retell the story in the same bland voice that Thursday’s narrative voice has. 

And our antagonist, Acheron Hades. With a name like that, how could Fforde have expected him to be anything other than a cardboard cutout villain. Imbued with a range of unexplained powers. Powers which are not shared by anyone else. 

Let’s have a look at Fforde’s naming system. Thursday Next is odd; Acheron Hades is too obvious and blunt; Jack Schitt is childishly scatological; but minor characters like Millon de Floss or Felix Tabularasa have sparks of fun and wit. 

Maybe I’m being too harsh on Fforde – or his editor, in all likelihood. A stronger editorial control could have made this a much better book. Maybe, though, just maybe, there’s a really clever developed story arc which will tie everything together over the rest of the series. Maybe I’m too foolish to recognise meta-literary post-modern irony and see them as a lack of control over the narrative. 

Maybe. 

I will probably give one more in the series a go. Just in case. 

If you liked this, try:

Mark Hodder, The Curious Case of Spring-Heeled Jack

Kim Newman, Anno Dracula

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

     This was a pleasant enough way to round of my half term: decently written in the engaging and practical voice of Lady Trent, this book conjures up a Regency style world with echoes of Austen. With dragons. 

The opening sections of the novel are the most Austenesque – if that’s even a word. Isabella Hendemore, the only daughter in a brood of boys, is indulged by her often absent gentleman father in an interest or passion in dragons who appear to be common enough to encroach into her father’s lands occasionally. They are treated by most people as any other predator, albeit a particularly dangerous predator, to be hunted and driven away from farms. 

After a few minor dragon-based adventures, Isabella is introduced to Society where she meets Jacob Camherst. Their courtship is sped over – presumably due to an absence of dragons – and I’d have liked to have seen more of it. Brennan’s writing was actually quite effective in describing the tension and comedy between genuine affection and the conventions in which Isabella are forced to express it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not Austen; it’s not social satire. But it was sweet and affecting. Especially as the narrative voice of Lady Trent is narrating the tale with the benefit of hindsight, status and a certain reputation for boldness. 

Following the wedding, Brennan has Isabella Camherst meet Lord Hilford, a peer of the realm with a naturalist’s interest in dragons. An expedition is planned to the village of Drustanev in Vystrana, a thinly veiled Russia. Isabella manoeuvres herself to be included in it. And from there, the heart of the novel begins as Brennan moves the memoir into the territory of a travelogue and then a mystery thriller. With dragons. 

The voice of Isabella, Lady Trent, was very well done. Self-deprecating, self-aware and honest. She – and in very real ways we’ve not seen her as neither Isabella Hendemore nor Isabella Camherst had yet become Isabella, Lady Trent, as she herself pointed out – was irascible and warm and engaging. A bit like an eccentric great-aunt. And the novel did indeed sound like what it claimed to be, a memoir, with occasional asides to the reader, references back to novels, travelogues and reference books within the world of the novel. 

The dragons’ presence was almost incidental: they were an integral feature of the landscape Brennan created and a key plot device but the story was really about the people. Some suspicious and fearful, some greedy, some venal, most generally decent, none exactly evil. It was quite refreshing for a fantasy novel not to have a dark lord figure brooding over the world pretending to be Sauron – and no doubt one whose name ends in -ex or -ix or some other suitably sinister suffix. Yes, Christopher Paolini, I’m referring to your King Galbatorix here! I’m sorry, but, well, the dragons make it an obvious comparison. 

So, all in all, I enjoyed this. It was pleasant and took me to a credible other world with some interesting characters. 

And there were dragons. 

And, doing the Reading Challenge which requires a trilogy, the remaining two books in the series (see here for covers, which are also very impressive) won’t be a bad way to spend the Summer. 

  

“Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”

I was born in 1973 in a village in Kent. So far as I know, only once. I have to say, when I die, if I were to be reborn as myself in the same village in 1973 again, I’d be a tad surprised! I mean 1973. I’d have to live through the ’80s again. Did anything good happen in the 80s?

But how would that repetition affect your life? Your relationship with your parents? With the world? With history? Immortal, yet destined to only see the same lifetime. That’s the basic premise of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. As a premise, it’s unusual and yet oddly familiar: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was very similar save that you were reborn as a new person and the next generation; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Harry is a kalachakra or ouroboran, one of many across the world, looping perpetually through their lives. We are never informed how or why these kalachakra exist and the question “What is the point of you?” echoes within the book. 

The cyclical nature of the protagonist’s life also affects the narrative structure a little in that occasional snippets and flashbacks occurred but the novel was generally chronological through Harry August’s lives. Certainly it lacked the complexity of structure which The Time Traveller’s Wife had. Nor does the book dwell on ethical questions, beyond the slightly unclear “Don’t bugger about with temporal events”. Harry decides to kill someone in almost every one of his lives because he murdered a friend in one. The lives of linears (normal un-re-born people… muggles I suppose) seem to be treated very poorly. As if their lives didn’t matter.

Philosophical ideas are thrown out: does each new life create its own alternative universe? 

None of it is really dwelt on.

The book which this reminded me of the most, however, was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It was, at heart, a thriller. Once you stripped out the reincarnation. Harry becomes part of The Cronus Club, an organisation generally aimed at self-preservation and support for themselves to avoid the ennui of repeated childhoods, as well as maintaining a temporal status quo. A shadowy figure emerges with a complex plan which threatens the world. Atrocities are committed. A confrontation occurs. 

It is a cracking thriller with a decent plot (the quantum mirror could be substituted for any weapon of mass destruction) and, despite developing over 400 years of linear time (give or take) a snappy pace. 

The relationship between Harry and Vincent, antagonists and comrades, loving and hating each other was played out well. With occasional moments of real tenderness and cruelty. Vincent, like Harry, is a kalachakra but rebels against the indolence and inaction perpetuated by the Cronus Clubs and he seeks to propagate the knowledge and science he discovers at the end of one life at the beginning of his next. In each lifetime, knowledge speeds up, discoveries are made sooner, boundaries are pushed further. The end of the world comes quicker. Harry and Vincent are two sides of the same coin, spinning together through their lives. Which reminds me of another Harry: young Mr Potter who carries around a portion of his nemesis’ soul with his own. 

The opening lines to the novel are addressed to Victor and encapsulate this:

I am writing this for you. 
      My enemy. 
      My friend. 
      You know, already, you must know. 
       You have lost. 

Time for a brief diversion. 

Books and authors and publishers are odd beasts, categorising each other and themselves… and then frequently deriding those categorisations. “What’s wrong with genre fiction?” is a frequent lament; “Literary fiction is so pretentious”. 

What is genre fiction anyway? Isn’t all fiction a genre? Isn’t fiction a genre? Well yes. My take on it though is this: if the author consciously adheres to the expectations of a genre then it feels like genre fiction; whereas, if the novel coincides with those expectations and conventions, it is not genre fiction just fiction. Within a genre but not for that genre. And then you get some clever buggers who write within a genre, consciously breaking the expectations, conventions and tropes. 
Me? I’m as guilty as anyone! I pigeonhole and categorise and shelve certain books together. I know I have a predilection for historical, crime and fantasy (especially with fairytale or Steampunk elements) and I enjoy that labelling process. Quite literally. When I moved house I enjoyed handing over my boxes labelled Gothic, Lesbian, Fantasy, Fairytale and the like!  Like many reviewers on WordPress, my list of categories demonstrates this rationalist love of classification! 

But I also like to think I am using those categories knowingly, with a half turned smirk. Post-modernly. Ironically. Because I also know that what makes a story work is utterly independent from its genre (literary or otherwise): characters, voice, language. Fun. Inventiveness. There is great genre fiction out there with all those features; there is also some very poor literary fiction.  I think that the reason genre fiction has come to be seen as a perjorative is that some writers adhere to the conventions as if they were rules. 

Now this has been a bit of a lengthy sidetrack. But it is because of a review I read of this book claiming that it was a crossover or breakout piece between science fiction genre fiction and literary fiction. I’m sorry if that was you and I’ve not credited you (let me know and I will if you want!)

I’m not sure I agree. I’m not even sure I’d agree it was science fiction. Sure, it’s sort of time travelling in a way but the science is pretty low impact. As I have said, it is a thriller more than anything else. A pretty damn good and different and unusual thriller but a thriller nonetheless.  

 

   

Okay. 

I’m going to ‘fess up here. 

This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking – those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality. 

If you’re looking for these things, you’ll not find them in this book and you’ll be disappointed. 

If, however, you’re looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you’ll be happy. 

This is the second of Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. 

Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack’s time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond. 

As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal – for more details of which you can read here – in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support. 

Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds. 

The battle towards the end of the book where the “well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite” walking dead – who are absent for most of the book – have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun. 

“I’m mortified,” one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable’s eye sockets. “This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies.”

Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it’s fun!

Hodder’s imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque – the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as “the famous explorer” too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined. 

Does it matter in this case?

Not a jot!

It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable. 

Fantasy is my (not so) secret (not so) guilty pleasure in reading. Fantasy introduced me to reading through The Hobbit and Tolkien. Fantasy was my escape from teenage tedium … my family was far too middle class to have angst!

And I still enjoy a healthy dollop of fantasy, as readers of this blog will realise. It’s comforting and secure to read; a familiar cast of characters whose joy is not hindered by their being clichés but rather derived from their being clichés. The dark mages drawing sinister powers; the green warlocks and Druids steeped in nature lore; white healing clerics; a dark focus of malevolence seeking to subdue the world; wise old men; gifted young disciples; innocent maidens. The quest. The Force, the Dark Side, Jedis, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Emperors… formulaic and predictable but comfortable.

Nowadays the fantasy world is dominated by giants: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin (is it possible for anyone with an alliterative double-R. middle name not to write fantasy in a post-Tolkien world?), Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan… Even J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer.

And where in this world does Clarke fit?

Off to one side I think.

She does not simply shake the dice of fantasy writing elements (no doubt dice hewn from the bones of some chthonic beast whose ribs even now tower over the city of New Crobuzon) and roll to see what combinations appear. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is utterly unique and enthralling.

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The first thing Clarke tells us is that magicians exist in England and, specifically, in Yorkshire. Not just one but an entire Society of magicians. Note: the Learned Society of York Magicians. No coven, no cabal, no caste. Not even a fellowship. A “Society”. Because these “magicians” perform no magic but study magic. Magic has died out centuries before.

What Clarke gives us is in fact a rather authentic sounding Austenesque pastiche of social satire. Even when Mr Gilbert Norrell is discovered as a practising magician he is neither the Dark Lord nor the Wise Mentor nor the precocious Apprentice. He feels as if he has stepped from the pages of Dickens: a

a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.

These words of Dickens describing Scrooge could just as easily be applied to Norrell in his Regency powdered wig, his jealous covetousness of all things magical – especially books and knowledge – and his tendency to tire his listeners with long, tedious and not-terribly interesting historical accounts.

And Strange? Strange, on something of a whim after hearing a prophecy to do with magic, decides to become a magician too. Strange is perhaps the closest to the clichéd Precocious Apprentice. Norrell teaches him but, whereas Norrell’s knowledge come from books, Strange has a more intuitive and perhaps more innate magical touch. He is younger, more dashing, more daring in his exploits in the Napoleonic Wars, more charismatic. More Byronic. Whom he meets and doesn’t terribly like in the latter part of the book.

These two eponymous gentlemen meet, bicker, admire, fall out with, fear and reconcile throughout the novel and their relationship is fascinating. And they surround themselves with a vibrant cast of supporting characters: Lasselles and Drawlight, the disreputable gentleman-friends of Norrell; Arabella Strange, Jonathan’s wife; Lady Pole; Vinculus, the ambiguous street magician and vagabond; Stephen Black; the Johns Childermass and Secundus; Flora Greysteele. Even the shopkeeper who is in love with Stephen Black and plays absolutely no part in the drama is beautifully written and wholly credible.

The heart of the novel, though, lies in neither them nor their relationship but in their work: English Magic. And the noun is preceded by the adjective almost exclusively. Divisions and antitheses abound in the novel: north and south; master and servant; Christian and Faery; Norrellite and Strangeite; reality and fantasy; sanity and madness; black and white; day and night. At its heart, however, is a core of Englishness.

An Englishness represented by an utterly key character: John Uskglass, The Raven King, The King of the North, The Nameless Slave. Uskglass, stolen to faery as a babe and returning as a youth to conquer and rule Yorkshire and Northern England for centuries through magic is spoken of, sought, sworn by, denigrated and discussed so much in the text that he feels ubiquitous. He is a legendary figure. Arthurian. Not quite trusted.

He does appear as a character. I think twice. Possibly for a total of three or four of the thousand or so pages of the book. I struggle to recall a character who is so monumental in a novel but so (almost) entirely absent from it. Even when he does appear, his presence is ambiguous: he is no returning saviour, no hero; he does not defeat the enemy nor aid either Strange or Norrell.

But then, is he absent? The trees and birds and hills and snow and (inevitably) rain of England are woven into the fabric of Uskglass as they are parts of the fabric of English magic and the very landscape of England and landscape of Englishmen is a character in its own right. It is this which defeats the enemy in the end: the country of England. Not its magicians nor its politicians but its own self. There is no pseudo-scientific system of magic here as some (more often American) writers tend to labour – and I’m not knocking that, Sanderson, Rothfuss et al, there’s a clear and genuine pleasure in your creation of and our exploration of your systems – but here the magic is so much more effective for remaining mysterious, mythical, not always even useful. It is so English that the final defeat of the threat is achieved by a combination of mistakes, misnomers and misconceptions.

And Clarke’s antagonist, the Gentleman With The Thistledown Hair is remarkable. She manages to create a genuinely creepy and potent antagonist, clearly extraordinarily powerful and dangerous, without making him evil. He is just himself: avaricious, capricious, self-centred, fearful and utterly lacking in empathy but also generous and to an extent loyal. He is faery and possibly mad by human standards and wholly amoral with no conscience. But he is as astounding a character in his self-centred loquaciousness as Uskglass is in his self-effacing quietude.

One of Clarke’s stylistic features which I loved but many have been irked by us her use of copious footnotes. Every chapter bears up to a dozen, which by the end of the novel become self-referencing. They also reference folklore (which is where a lot of the depiction of John Uskglass derives), historio-magical texts, collections of letters and articles and even future biographies of the main characters. I can understand why there was a danger of them becoming tedious and gimmicky but, for me, they worked extremely well and created the illusion of a massively extended, immersive and patently English universe.

And I have to say that listening to this was a pleasure with the dulcet tones of the wholly apt Simon Prebble! Extremely good casting from Audible!

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Some books are born great.

Some books achieve greatness.

Some books have greatness thrust upon them.

This book is not one of them. It’s not great. It’s not beautifully written. It’s not literary.

But it is immensely fun!

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Mark Hodder propels us into Victorian London: the search for the source of the Nile, Stanley, Livingstone, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, Darwin, Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; smog, hansom cabs, Penny Farthings. And giant, genetically engineered swans pulling kites in which people can sit.

Yes, giant swans. Yes, genetic engineering. Huge elephantine megadrays. Trained parakeets for delivering verbal messages – spiced with additional swear words of the parakeets’ own choice. Werewolves. Flying steam powered armchairs. Even the Penny Farthings are motorised.

There are two basic sects in Albertian London: Libertines who celebrate freedom, art, poetry and sexual experimentation and their slightly more extreme brethren the Rakes for whom every law is an undue limit on their freedom; and scientists who are split between Engineers and Eugenicists.

Hodder’s London is a steampunk alternate history world which gives Hodder plenty of opportunity to be playful and inventive. At times, I felt he was at risk of becoming somewhat self indulgent in his creativity and re-interpretation of Victoria’s London into Albert’s but there is a cracking yarn at the heart of the story which knots it together.

Our hero is Sir Richard Burton – soldier, explorer and linguist – scarred physically and mentally from expeditions in Africa and the debate with his friend John Speke over the source of the Nile – adrift in a world that seems to be turning its back on him. Until he is offered the position of King’s Agent with the brief to investigate the weird and unusual. Yes, there are weirder and more unusual things in the world than giant swans. Werewolves or loup-garou for example; and Spring-Heeled Jack.

Burton is accompanied and assisted by Algernon Swinburne, the poet whose incarnation here is a libertine influenced by de Sade but small and childish he gives the infamous and deadly Burton something of a foil … and an opportunity to infiltrate the chimney sweeps of London. He was the weakest character in the book for me: he didn’t offer much and the humour he added was a tad puerile and focused on his sexual enjoyment of some of the beatings he received. Whereas the were elements of Holmes about Burton; Swinburne didn’t balance him the way Watson balances Holmes.

The explanation for Spring-Heeled Jack was one that I guessed pretty quickly but is, I guess, a spoiler. Perhaps it will suffice to say that 10th of June 1840 is the critical date in the novel: the day in (true) history when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It has to be true: its in Wikipedia! Imagine the effect of that assassination attempt on his descendants, the shame forever attached to the family. Imagine them wishing that he had never made that attempt…

As I said at the beginning, this was not a great book; it was a fun, well imagined, romp through a steampunk alternative universe. It is creative and well paced; it works as steampunk and it works as an action/thriller.

Good. Clean. Fun.

No real thinking required.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

This is a debut novel and clearly – whilst self contained – anticipated to be part of a series: not all the antagonists are captured or disposed of and it is a rich world full of potential and two further books have been written The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Worth a look?

Hell yeah!