All week long I’ve been sharing with you some of my favorite steampunk stories and some new discoveries. I’m closing out my Steam Week with two books that I insist that you buy and read, steampunk fan or not. As steampunk stories, they are likely to set a new standard for authenticity (well, as authentic as fiction can aspire). As science fiction stories, they are, hands down, two of the most interesting and well-plotted stories I’ve read in a long time.
The two books in question are The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, written by Mark Hodder. I discovered Spring Heeled Jack a year ago but work got the best of me and the book sat on my shelf for a year until I saw Clockwork Man on the shelves a few weeks ago (a new release) — the covers are stunning and do grab your attention, and seeing the new book reminded me that I’d still not yet tackled the first book in the planned trilogy. And now, having finished both, I am kicking myself for not reading Spring Heeled Jack a year ago when I first had the chance… it’s that good.
The series’ two protagonists are Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon (Algy) Charles Swinburne, two real-life characters who find themselves in some strange circumstances with a wide variety of other real-life individuals such as Darwin, Babbabe, Wilde, Brunel, and more.
A brief side-note: I received degrees in both English and engineering, so the book was making me smile ear-to-ear with its mixture of literary and technological figures of the period and the authentic sounding discussions between the thinkers of the age. Friends have asked me why I love steampunk so much, and I doubt I could put my finger on any one answer. I do know, however, that as an elective I took a Victorian Poetry class (I heard it was both interesting and not so difficult — correct on the first point, wrong on the second) where my instructor required us to research the time period — clothing, slang, music, social practices, transportation, working conditions, philosophy, and religion — so we would have a better understanding of the poetry. Hands down, this research probably gave me a much better appreciation for the time period and the poetry. And studying engineering (specifically Industrial and manufacturing methods) gave me an appreciation of the Industrial Revolution and the drive so many of the inventors had to improve and change conditions. But I digress…
Back to the stories — I struggled with the decision to review both books with details or to remain vague. You need to understand that there are some heady sci-fi themes in these books, and for Spring Heeled Jack at least, one of the main themes really does need to remain a secret for readers. Spring Heeled Jack is a mythical figure from the actual period, but Hodder has taken some real liberties to explain why the Prime Minister (and ultimately The King) have asked Sir Burton to beg off his adventures abroad (The Source of the Nile can wait!) and investigate assaults on young ladies by a mysterious figure. (Wait! The King? Not Queen Victoria? Oops… one minor secret slipped there, but not a biggie, I promise.)
We’ve all heard of Space Opera, right? Well, Hodder truly has a Steam Opera series on his hands here — it’s world building at its finest, and he has fleshed out London and the surrounding areas with political parties, technology breakthroughs already in place, and a solid grasp of society — its style of speaking, its social rules, and the class distinctions. I didn’t live in this time period, but reading the dialogue and the scene descriptions rings true — I have no doubt that Hodder has done some serious research of the late 1800s to provide such authentic details.
Burton isn’t a one-man army, even if he thinks he is. He enlists the help of many interesting characters during the first story including poet Swinburne. The two couldn’t be more different in their language, background, appearance, political views, and vices, but they’re both risk-takers and respectful of one another.
Can you tell I’m being vague about the story? Sorry about that, but I really do not want to ruin any surprises — and there are a lot of them! Spring Heeled Jack is only the tip of the iceberg for Burton & Swinburne, as much of what takes place in the first book has a direct impact on the plot of the second book. It really is driving me crazy to not be able to tell you what has happened to Burton and Swinburne’s world, but if you end up reading the books I think you’ll end up wanting to thank me for not spoiling it here.
Once you finish with the second book, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, I think you’ll also agree that Hodder has some serious plot chops. I found myself hunting back through the pages of both books to check something that impacted a later scene… Hodder did his homework and made no mistakes as far as I can tell. The plot in the first book is complex but extremely enjoyable — and when the big reveal happens about halfway to 2/3 through, you may wonder as I did what can he do to finish the rest of the book? The secret is out! But don’t worry — the big reveal is only one of many big reveals. I love this series!
So I’ve gone back and re-read my review here to make certain I’m happy with it and that I’ve not given away any major secrets. But in doing so, I realize I’ve also only given one minor secret. And there are a bunch of those as well. Good! I’m fine with that, as those of you who choose to buy and read the book(s), I believe, will thoroughly love it and those of you who don’t take the chance won’t miss what you never had in the first place, right?
That said, I urge you to hunt down these books. Even if you don’t like steampunk, you’ll find these stories to be worthy of any science fiction library. (Spring Heeled Jack did win the Philip K. Dick Award 2011 by the way… that should tell you something.)
Both The Curious Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man are available in paperback from Pyr. I’d like to thank Pyr (again) for providing me with a PDF review copy of Spring Heeled Jack after my own print copy received some serious water damage (don’t ask) about halfway through the reading. I’ve since ordered a replacement copy for my shelf.
My only problem now is the wait for January 2012 when the third book, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon, is released. I guess I’ll just have to hunt down some more steampunk books in the meantime…