Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: 'The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack' by Mark Hodder

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about steampunk. If you're still confused, here's a review  of the most recent steampunk novel I've enjoyed: "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder (Prometheus Books). It's a mystery, a time travel tale, an alternate history tale and, yes, steampunk. 
The plot concerns the author and explorer (not the actor) Sir Richard Francis Burton  at a pivotal moment in his life and career, the real-life urban legend of Spring-Heeled Jack (sometimes a hero, sometimes an alias of Jack the Ripper), and the Decadent poet Algernon Swinburne. 
I've been interested in Burton since watching a miniseries on the search for the source of the Nile. He was also a major character in Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" novels, including "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" (and the awful films based on them on the "SyFy" channel). He had many of the skills of a fictional hero including vast knowledge, fighting ability and a talent for disguise (he was allegedly the first non-Muslim to set foot in Mecca, after which he translated the "1001 Nights" and "The Kama Sutra").
The history of Burton's world has diverged from our history before the book opens due to a time-traveler's accidental interference. His presence at an (historical) assassination attempt on Queen Victoria leads to her actually being assassinated. The demonstration of  his future science inspires technical advances, leading to steampunk inventions (futuristic inventions that occurred, if at all, much later in our history, sometimes using contemporary power such as steam). His efforts to reverse these changes leads to the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack. 
Burton's life  is also redirected, because of the "butterfly effect" (one small change causing a chain reaction that alters everything). Instead of accepting a post to a distant embassy, he remains in London as a special agent for the government, investigating the consequences of the time traveler's changes. Swinburne, who was destined to die at a young age, instead assists Burton's investigations, gaining focus under Burton's tutelage and consequently may live a longer, happier life.  Burton, informed of what his destiny would have been, also seems happier with the changes.
In what I imagine is a poke at other "steampunk" books which add supernatural elements, such as zombies and vampires, Hodder makes use of "werewolves," although these are science fictional werewolves created by steampunk genetic engineering. 
For those of us who aren't history majors, Hodder includes an appendix describing how history transpired in our world. (Such an appendix might have improved my enjoyment of "The Difference Engine.") 
Highly recommended.


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