THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK by Mark Hodder
Pyr, 2010, 978-1-61614-240-7, 371 pages, Trade Paperback, $16.00
As I mentioned in a previous post, Pyr’s fall and winter titles are at the top of my purchase list for the next few months. In November, I’ll be picking up The Greyfriar (which has gotten excellent reviews so far, I should point out), and in December it will be The Buntline Special. But in the meantime I’ve been enjoying myself with Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack—a book which, incidentally, a friend brought back for me from the Pyr booth at DragonCon (hooray!).
There are many enjoyable aspects of this book, but two in particular stand out for me: The use of historical characters and the altered setting. Spring Heeled Jack considers how figures from our history—Sir Richard Francis Burton, Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale to name a few—might have changed had the past been corrupted by a traveler from the future. In some cases, the alterations might be minor, but in others they’re positively extreme. Meanwhile, with the rise of the Technologists and the Eugenicists, even the world itself features heavy modification, including devices such as velocipedes and rotoships alongside genetically altered animals (the parakeets were beyond hilarious, by the by) and people—technology well outside the bounds of the Victorian period that we know.
Without a doubt, Hodder renders the atmosphere of this story in wonderful detail, allowing the reader to be sucked into the world. I know I certainly connected with the setting best of all, and anyone who enjoys the steampunk style will be able to appreciate Hodder’s attention to this facet of the novel.
Some of the characters, on the other hand, took a little more effort to follow at times. I failed to connect sufficiently with Sir Richard Francis Burton, which I found troublesome as he was the focus of the majority of the book. Yet I wasn’t at all surprised to find myself entertained by his friend Algernon Swinburne, poet and (frequently) self-proclaimed follower of de Sade (I suppose I’m giving myself away if I admit I find him adorable and quite hilarious). Despite my feeling of distance from Burton, they make a truly wonderful pair. Their differences are complementary, and now that their partnership is established, I know I shall look forward to seeing them work together in future stories.
Other characters I enjoyed were the Beetle, though he was peripheral, and Edward Oxford, for whom I couldn’t help but feel sympathetic. The use of chimneysweeps and the Beetle’s enigmatic presence, though not directly seen, were lovely additions, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them again. As for Oxford, I won’t go into detail merely to avoid spoilers, but I did feel for his position throughout the book, even after (or perhaps because), like so many of the other altered characters, he starts going perfectly mad.
The time travel was well handled, though, like most time travel scenarios, it made me absolutely crazy at times. Mind you this isn’t a flaw, merely the nature of time travel plots in general (if it were otherwise, it probably wouldn’t be fun anymore). My initial reaction to the reason for the time traveling was that it seemed a dodgy reason to go back in time, especially so far back. But the more I thought about it, the more this seemed like exactly the sort of reason someone would come up with. Certainly, human decisions aren’t always known for making complete sense to the outside observer. Plus the personal ramifications for what ultimately happens are all the more affecting when characters consider them in hindsight.
Since the timeline isn’t reversed and corrected by the end of the novel (sorry, sorry! A spoiler, I know, but…), readers can expect future installments to take place in the same fascinating setting—something I will be looking forward to. It isn’t every day that the world itself is what draws me in the most, and I’ve no doubt that I’ll enjoy every moment of adventure set in this one.