Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (Pyr, 2010).

It's curious that I should now be writing about this book just after my best mate Dave linked to an article where SF author Neal Stephenson called for an end to all this backwards-looking steampunk SF and a return to actually writing books about the future. Dave's never had any time for or interest in steampunk. Neither have I, for that matter, but one must admit that some of those cosplayers dress pretty well.

At any rate, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the first in a series of novels - the third is due to be published in the spring - featuring two adventurers in an alternate timeline where Queen Victoria was assassinated early in her reign by a time-traveling lunatic. Time has gone off the rails, eugenics has taken hold, very quickly, and phantasmagorical science has led the empire into a technological revolution at the cost of an even greater underclass of poverty than our world had in the 1890s. It's a very fun read, if you're willing to really, really suspend some serious disbelief, and it sparked some interesting questions about how time travel works in this world.

It is, however, quite painfully flawed in places. It is the debut novel from Mark Hodder, and there are bits where it's painfully apparent that he's a novice with this. At one point, our hero meets with a police inspector who was just a rookie on patrol the day that the Queen was shot, and who saw the bizarre apparition of Spring-Heeled Jack in the area. This sequence was just painful to read, as the inspector relates events to Sir Richard Francis Burton that Burton assuredly already knows, in an awkward and fumbling way to get this information to the reader. There's a lot of this in the book, with weird inventions and the results of odd experiments launching alternate London into its bold future, and the book repeatedly stops to explain what the heck some gadget or messaging service does.

I enjoyed considering the ramifications of the rules of time travel that Hodder employs. Apparently, you only get one shot at altering time, and once you're done, you can't change it again. You certainly can't change it back, but everything else that the hapless villain of the piece tries has already been done, and he just learns about it too late. I wonder why. It certainly sparked an entertaining discussion about all the "time-wimey stuff," as Doctor Who terms it, with my wife, who brought the book home from the newspaper after it made its way to an employee sale. She was less taken with it than I was, though I confess I was more taken with the book's promise, and the curious questions that it raised, than by the nuts and bolts of the world that Hodder created. It seems that somebody went to an awful lot of unbelievable trouble in genetics and breeding to create the far-out messenger bird communication when just letting Alexander Graham Bell have his run of things would have been a whole lot simpler. Recommended with reservations.

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