Monday, December 3, 2012

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a fantastic mix of steampunk, alternate history, detective novel and science fiction.

The real genius in the book lay in pairing the explorer Sir Richard Burton with the masochistic poet Algernon Swinburne. It’s this unlikely duo and their somewhat exaggerated portrayal in the book that really makes it work and sets it apart from many others of the same type. As soon as I heard Burton was a major character I was probably sold on The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Richard Burton was one of my favourite characters from Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series and interested me enough to read one of the biographies (The Devil Drives). The opportunity to see him featuring in another story was not to be missed. I think the obvious literary parallel to make here is that Burton is Sherlock Holmes and Swinburne is Dr Watson. That was the feel I got from the duo.

Author Mark Hodder has made full use of his steampunk setting and the alternate Victorian England he has created for the novel. Along with steam powered hansom cabs and single person gyrocopters there are genetically altered parrots, dogs and in one case an orang-utan. Burton and Swinburne aren’t the only real life Victorian figures to play a part in proceedings. The also features the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, nurse Florence Nightingale, naturalist Charles Darwin and playwright Oscar Wilde. I also liked the portrayal of British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, because it tallied in many ways with the way George MacDonald Fraser wrote the same character in his Flashman novels.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack while trying to explain the origin of the supernatural phenomenon referenced in the title, is also a glorious romp through a wondrous and very different Victorian England to the one we know. The character of Algernon Swinburne as he is in the book was a real breath of fresh air, he could go down as one of my favourite sidekicks. The slight poet provides many of the book’s most comedic moments, particularly his antagonistic relationship with the basset hound Fidget.        

I was delighted to get to the end of the book and find that not only did it not spell the end for the decidedly odd couple of Burton and Swinburne, but that there are at least two more books (The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon) featuring them. Although many of the changes within British society and the technological advances are explained by history taking a curious turn I don’t think it covered everything, and I hope that this will be looked into further with the upcoming books in the series. Highly recommended and well worth reading, a superior entry into the ever expanding steampunk sub genre.  

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