Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Okay, so it’s July, and you and I both know that at some point this summer you’ll have to crack open whatever book the schools have decided you need to read this summer. Fine, you gotta  do what you gotta do. (Can you tell I’m no great fan of assigned summer reading?) Here, then, is my antidote to the summer reading assignment: “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” by Mark Hodder (Pyr, 2010). It’s a rollicking, head-spinning steampunk adventure that is unlikely to find its way onto any summer reading list.

The book’s hero is Sir Richard Francis Burton, the great British explorer, linguist, and scholar, and his diminutive sidekick, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the thrill-seeking young poet. (In an appendix titled “Meanwhile, in the Victorian Age,” Hodder gives brief biographies of these and the many other real-life characters who appear in the book.)

Although it opens in London, 1861, this is not the familiar Victorian London. For one thing, the young Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840; her husband, Albert, is King. The country is in the midst of a technological and social upheaval. Engineers, part of the new Technologist caste, have created steam-driven velocipedes, flying rotorchairs, and giant crab-like robotic street cleaners. Eugenicists, the other half of the Technologists, have created messenger parakeets with the unfortunately tendency to pepper their messages with insults, giant swans pulling passenger-carrying box kites, and most frighteningly, werewolves that carry off young chimney sweeps. The new Libertines oppose repressive laws, while the Rakes dabble in magic, drugs, and anarchy.

Enter Spring Heeled Jack, a bogeyman legendary for groping young women, leaving them shocked or permanently damaged. After an encounter with the strange creature, Burton is commissioned to investigate. I don’t want to give too much away, but the Rube Goldberg-style plot reveals just how Victorian London was transformed into Steampunk London, and it’s satisfying indeed. Throw in a talking orangutan, a sinister albino panther-man, appearances by Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, and Florence Nightingale, and you’ve got one heck of a fun summer read.

I found this book on the adult science fiction shelf in the library, but it’s suitable for older teens. There is some rough language, the most colorful of which is spoken by the messenger parakeets (“Message for the Marquess of buttock-wobbling Waterford!”), talk of attempted rape, and the sort of violence you’d see in superhero movies, including exploding werewolves. If you liked this book, Burton and Swinburne return in “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man” (Pyr, 2011).

This review originally published in The News-Gazette, July 17, 2011. 

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