Steampunk is all the rage nowadays. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
seizes the trend in an intriguingly weird story that turns history on its head, thanks to the inept bungling of a time-traveler who, in our world, was one of the most notorious urban legends of Victorian England.
I am not really a huge fan of steampunk. Actually, to put it bluntly, I think most steampunk is stupid, an excuse to mix corsets and Anglophilia with science fiction.
But I enjoyed this book a lot. It's rip-roarin' well-plotted adventure, with a fine attention to historical detail if not scientific plausibility.
There are lots of things Mark Hodder does right. His alt-history is a colorful blend of historical figures and fanciful inventions. It's not science, it's Science!
When a time traveler from the 22nd century goes back in time to 1840, the date on which 18-year-old Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria, he inadvertently causes the assassination to succeed. The changes that result from Victoria's death are not merely the loss of "Victorian" England, but a 19th century England in which Technologists build ornithopters and geothermal power stations and air trains, while eugenicists engineer messenger dogs and parakeets, house-cleaning cats, and elephantine horses. Meanwhile, Libertines and Rakes are rival factions preaching a complete overthrow of the social order. Mesmerism and other "magical" practices are real, and genetic engineering on humans is beginning.
Adventuring, two-fisted pulp style, in this steampunk bizarro world are the famous explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and the poet Algernon Swinburne. Burton crosses the sinister time-traveling "Spring Heeled Jack," thus becoming ensnared in his calamitous attempts to unscrew history.
The use of actual historical figures is cleverly done. According to 19th century lore, Spring Heeled Jack was some sort of superhuman demi-rapist, running around England sexually assaulting women by tearing their clothes off. Hodder actually comes up with a logical explanation for "Jack's" behavior, and for how the loon could be a time traveler. I also appreciated his use of historical personages and events. Edward Oxford was a real person, and his attempted assassination of Queen Victoria is a historical fact; Hodder makes strange fiction out of it. He uses real people like Richard Burton, Algernon Swinburne, and Lord Henry Beresford of Waterford, with cameos by Oscar Wilde, Charles Babbage, and others. I was particularly amused at the eeeeeeevil evolutionists being led by Charles Darwin and Florence Nightingale. There was no insertion of overtly fictional characters — i.e., no Sherlock Holmes or Allan Quatermain. It's almost like a bent world that might have been.
That said, this book gets 4 stars for story and content, 3 stars for writing. I suppose some of the writing tics that bugged me may have been a deliberate attempt to emulate the writing style of Victorian pulp adventures, hence Sir Richard Burton constantly being referred to as "the King's agent." But having long chapters of exposition narrated to us by the expedient of characters eavesdropping on the bad guys as they conveniently monologue their life history and then spell out their plans in detail? Lazy. Entertaining as heck, but lazy. Hodder is a great storyteller, and the pace never flagged, even during the monologues, but the plotting was sloppy. And like most steampunk settings, there's a lot of suspension of disbelief required, since steampunk cyborgs, talking orangutans, and genetically-engineered housepets are not a logical consequence of killing Queen Victoria, even with a time traveler letting slip a few hints about the future to inquisitive 19th century scientists. Still, accept that history has been kicked onto its side and anything goes, and the plot flows right along.
A great read for any fan of steampunk, an entertaining read for fans of historicals who don't mind fantasy.
Also, I must confess that this debut novel, which was wobbling a little shakily between 3 and 4 stars, earned its fourth star when it ended with my very favorite Swinburne poem:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
Good enough for me to consider the next volume in the series when I am in the mood for a beach read.