Friday, May 7, 2010


Really getting through the list now! James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus is the 4th of the B authors and the 7th in the complete list of 100 works.

I did read some Blaylock back in the dim dark ages of the 80’s when he was most prolific and kids were still riding their dinosaurs to school. I can’t remember what it was I read, but I never touched the author again. Homunculus reminded me why.

Having now read it I’m not actually sure why it qualified for the list at all. It’s best classified as steampunk. James Blaylock is considered one of the pioneers of that field. Although Homunculus was published in 1986, a year before the term was coined, it is most definitely steampunk. It’s set in and around London in 1870, whether or not this is an alternate reality is not explained.

One of a number of problems I had with the book is the lack of a coherent plot. As near as I could work out it concerned the efforts of a group of amateur scientists and inventors who called themselves the Trismegistus Club to keep the contents of two boxes (a large emerald and a tiny man; the homunculus of the title) out of the clutches of their sworn enemy; wealthy and unscrupulous Kelso Drake and his band of henchmen. There was a subplot about a homemade spacecraft built by Langdon St Ives; one of the leading members of the Trismegistus Club, an object that Drake also covets. There was a third party, a mad evangelist (aren’t they all?) by the name of Shiloh, exactly what purpose he served in the book I’m not sure, his presence seemed confusing and was not explained to my satisfaction. I’m sure he seemed like a good idea at the time.

Blaylock’s characterisation frustrated me no end. The nicest thing that can be said about the members of the Trismegistus Club is that, with the possible exception of the unfortunate Bill Kraken, they were bland. Drake and his henchmen, including the evil hunchbacked reanimator; Dr Ignacio Narbondo, were cardboard cut out villains, you half expected them to twirl their moustaches and laugh evilly.

The author seemed to have written book in 3 separate styles, part Victorian mystery, part Frankensteinesque science fiction and then steampunk fantasy. I’ve seen the melding of styles done successfully in the past, but it’s not easy to do and in the case of Homunculus it failed spectacularly, not one of the styles was written particularly well or worked well with the rest of the story. Added to that was a strange and perplexing preoccupation with fish. Barely a chapter went by that the aquatic creatures weren’t mentioned.

The pacing was also uneven, mostly the narrative moved quite slowly, the action sequences were short and sometimes abortive and came at unexpected times, except for the penultimate chapter which was a slapstick chase scene that would not have been out of place in a Keystone Cops silent movie.

In the end I didn’t know why the protagonists did what they did and overall it was not an enjoyable read. I won’t be seeking out more of James P. Blaylock’s work.

If someone would like to read something in this vein, but much better written and more entertaining, I’d recommend Australian YA author Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series, currently comprising 4 books (Blaze of Glory, Heart of Gold, Word of Honour & Time of Trial).

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