Friday, June 3, 2016

Review of The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives by James P. Blaylock

One of the first (and unwitting) works of steampunk, James P. Blaylock's Homunculus was an idiosyncratic story equals parts Dickens, Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and P.G. Wodehouse. Blaylock making the combination his own, he enhanced his version of gaslit London by publishing a handful of short stories and another novel, Lord Kelvin's Machine, in the surrounding years. There followed a long break, almost two decades in fact, before Blaylock returned to the British gentleman Langdon St. Ives and his rowdy, venturesome friends, however. But return he did, a fresh round of short novels and stories starting to appear in 2009. The first round collected in The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives in 2008 by Subterranean Press, in 2016 they return with a second omnibus, The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives.

Containing the novellas “The Ebb Tide,” “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs,” and “The Adventure of the Ring of Stones,” as well as the previously unpublished short stories “The Here-and-Thereians” and “Earthbound Things,” The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives carries on the series in the same style as the first omnibus. Subterranean putting effort into the presentation, the lettering and format are beautiful, and the stories are complemented by dozens and dozens of illustrations by J.K. Potter. While I personally believe minimalist ink/pencil sketches with more emphasis on action than character would better capture the feel of the St. Ives stories, for sure there are others who will fully appreciate Potter's style of pop art and its moody darkness. It’s a rarity these days that any book contains illustrations, so at a minimum we should be grateful to have something to comment on. But on to the stories.

Despite the near two decades respite, Blaylock wastes no time getting his characters back into the thick of adventures. Three chapters into “The Ebb Tide,” the first story appearing in Further Adventures, and St. Ives, Owlesby and Hasbro are at the helm of a never-before-seen underwater vessel, rifle shots chasing them out of the underground cavern they’d been lured into. St. Ives learning how to operate the bizarre craft with every twist of a knob and fiddle of a lever, it isn’t long before a certain map, a map that has fallen between themselves and the malign Hilario Frostico, becomes all important, the race on to the treasure. Though in Blaylock’s London, treasure doesn’t quite sum it up…

In “The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs” an innocent trip to assist a friend in Scotland quickly turns into a bait-and-trap scheme by the nefarious Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Narbondo getting hold of a reckless inventor’s madness ray, even St. Ives’ wife, the fiery Alice, gets dragged into the scene. Hallucinations and shenanigans abound, Owlseby, Tubby, Hasbro and others must be on their toes trying to catch to the elusive Narbondo before he drives all of Scotland mad.

In perhaps the most enjoyable, if not most bombastic piece in the omnibus, “The Adventure of the Ring of Stones” finds St. Ives and his chums at sea, involved in a treasure hunt, getting in over their heads with powers of the deep. A sort of King Kong (sans gorilla) meets Treasure Island, Blaylock unleashes hell on London in a story that continually ratchets the tension meter higher and higher into an exciting conclusion.

Previously unpublished, the two novelettes closing the omnibus find St. Ives involved in schemes and scenarios as vastly different as the first three. In “The Here-and-Thereians,” a vacation to London for St. Ives sees him caught up in street corner religion, and a peculiar drug being peddled by a salesman. In “Earthbound Things,” a waterfall opening from the sky pushes St. Ives and company on a balloon adventure with a wacky Polish scientist, other dimensions seemingly just around the corner.

Classic to the bone, the stories collected in The Further Adventures of Langdon St. Ives feel as though they could have been published at the beginning of the 20th century—only those with a contemporary knowledge of steampunk the wiser. The characters colorful stereotypes and the mode of storytelling dynamically familiar, for readers looking for a retro romp with a modern sensibility, it's difficult to go wrong. If there is anything lacking, it would be the idiosyncrasy of the first St. Ives stories. Homunculus for example, has a certain quirky, off-kilter rhythm that defines a significant part of its style, whereas the stories in Further Adventures are staid, more paced. Perhaps simply due to Blaylock’s finding of voice at the start of his career, it nevertheless lent those stories an additional degree of originality, whereas the later stories, stories like “The Ebb Tide” or “The Affair of Chalk Cliffs” would have been enhanced by having a similar vigor to their undercurrent.

Like The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, the Further Adventures is an omnibus that can easily be picked up and put down when finishing a story. Containing short novels and long short stories, each is individual, even episodic, and is to be enjoyed as light fare. St. Ives is not the classic left-hook-swinging, thinking-on-his-toes hero many such characters from the era are. More an unwitting scientist whose curiosity often gets him in over his head and in need of rescue from his friends, St. Ives nevertheless fits in marvelously. Subterranean choosing not to include Blaylock’s two most recent St. Ives’ novels (The Aylesford Skull and Beneath London) in Further Adventures, perhaps a third omnibus (The Last Adventures of Langdon St. Ives?) with a few yet-published shorts is in the works?

The following are the contents of Further Adventures:

Introduction (by James Blaylock)
“The Ebb Tide”
“The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs”
“The Adventure of the Ring of Stones”
“The Here-and-Thereians” (original to the omnibus)
“Earthbound Things” (original to the omnibus)

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