Monday, October 26, 2015

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

Pouncing on the steampunk zeitgeist, Mark Hodder’s 2010 The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack takes the clockwork aesthetic and runs with it—as fast and hard as it can.  Victorian England, steam horses, top hats and walking sticks, brass hovercrafts, Richard Burton (a la a Sherlock Holmes), the paranormal, biological tinkering, cursing parrots, and a mystery involving a spring-loaded, blue fire-breathing man on the foggy streets of London—it may be as overtly steampunk as steampunk gets.

A clear mix of Tim Power’s The Anubis Gates and James Blaylock’s Langdon St. Ives books with a lingering essence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Hodder places Richard Burton, the famous African explorer, front and center in an alternate history adventure of late 19th century British proportion.  With secret societies, late night escapades, eugenics, Dickensian street urchins, spontaneously exploding werewolves, roto chairs, and time travel conundrums peppering the mix, the devices and tropes leave no doubt as to its predecessors. 

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack opens with one of Burton’s main rivals for discovering the source of the Nile near death from an apparent attempt at suicide.  But it’s being accosted by a strange, electrically sparking man with spring-loaded stilts for legs on the street soon thereafter that truly tilts Burton’s world.  Asked by the Prime Minister to forgo his African expeditions and use his talents with language, disguise, sword, and gumption for getting to the bottom of the Spring Heeled Jack mystery, Burton in the thick of matters, his diminutive friend Swinburne by his side, wandering the back alleys at night, trying to find the mysterious electrical man who is molesting women randomly across decades.

A third wave steampunk offering, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a novel fully aware of its artifice.  Steam powered this-and-that, gene experiments resulting in odd animal behaviors and unnatural human creations, politics divided between libertines and technologists, time travel, and of course, that requisite element for all stereotypical steampunk, the assassination of Queen Victoria.  About the only thing swaying from normal is the novel’s structure. An anti-frame story, Hodder embeds the main conceit rather than opening and closing with it.  Mostly successful (the molestation scenes become repetitious), it perks up a narrative that, aside from Hodder’s colorful imagination, runs on auto-pilot.  

For this, the mainstream reader should be fully satisfied by The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack; it delivers a steampunk aesthetic in endless spades.  For a reader looking to engage a little deeper, it’s quite likely they will find the novel light.  Powers’ The Anubis Gates more satisfying plot-wise, Blaylock’s Homunculus more singular, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde more concise in content and precise in prose, Hodder’s offering is solid but lacks the cohesion of all storytelling’s elements to supersede any of its antecedents.  Rarely dipping below the surface of its creation, the novel utilizes most if not all the major sub-genre tropes but never examines them—fun and drama, but nothing political, and for this is better categorized “gaslight romance”.

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