Monday, March 14, 2011

Burton & Swinburne Adventures #1 by Mark Hodder

After finishing up my January column, I had a couple more alternate history titles drop in my lap, and after I read the description of Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, it took about two seconds for me to dive right in: “Sir Richard Francis Burton, an explorer, a linguist, a scholar, and a swordsman. His reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.” Richard Burton? Seriously? Really? Burton was one of the greatest explorers in British history (and they have a lot of explorers to choose from). He was brilliant and fearless and sexy, and right up until he settled into a life of domesticity and, well, dullness, he lived larger than most of us can imagine. It’s not so much that his later years were bad ones, just that they weren’t as exciting as his earlier ones, and when you read about him you have to wonder, what if. Mark Hodder clearly wondered the same thing, and he dropped Burton into an alternate history title that doesn’t just assume times have changed, but makes that change a plot point that is the tip of a mystery of epic proportions.

What you have is a creature right out of B-movie science fiction who appears in the streets and countryside of Victorian England to grope young women and leave them shocked and/or permanently damaged. The creature gets into an altercation with Burton, making several statements that suggest they know each other, and then vanishes, leaving the explorer alarmed and shaken. He barely has time to register what has happened before he is summoned by the Prime Minister and offered a job working unusual cases that fall outside traditional police work. It seems a pack of wolfmen (not what you think) are attacking people in the poorer sections of the London. Burton sets out to investigate and soon enough, as we know it will, all hell breaks loose.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to grasp some serious differences in Hodder’s London. Most noticeably, this is not Victorian London, as Victoria herself is dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet in 1840 (in real life the assassin was unsuccessful). In the years that followed, there has been some minor political upheaval and a ton of technological and religious upheaval. As Booklist noted in its review, Hodder includes “steam-driven velocipedes, rotorchairs, verbally abusive messenger parrots, a pneumatic rail system, and robotic street cleaners.” Throw in the Libertines, Darwin, poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel, some engineered messenger dogs, and a ton of other intriguing characters real and imagined (Oscar Wilde, newspaper boy!) and the history and action converge in an enormously compelling way. But the heart of the story remains the question of Spring Heeled Jack, and what he is hunting for. As Burton gets ever closer to answers, readers will find themselves surprised in numerous ways -- all of which come together in a fantastic ending that promises more adventure in the future. (The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is due out at the end of the month.) I loved the thrills and chills, and my inner historian geeked out all over to see Burton and Swinburne together (Hodder hews quite closely to Burton’s biography, here which raises the novel’s impact several notches), but it’s the way the mystery comes together that kept me turning the pages. Start this one only if you have some time on your hands; it won’t be easy to put it down.

Crossposted at Bookslut - more on Clockwork Man here.

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