THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK
Burton & Swinburne #1
Sir Richard Francis Burton: An explorer, a linguist, a scholar, and a swordsman. His reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead.
Algernon Charles Swinburne: A promising young poet, a thrill-seeker, and a follower of the Marquis de Sade. For him pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin!
They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicentre of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.
The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as SPRING HEELED JACK, and to find out why werewolves are terrorising London's East End.
Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age -- and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn't exist at all!
Okay, I confess: I bought this book purely because of the cover. I mean, look at it. It's gorgeous. It just screams "steampunk" at the top of its lungs.
Why, no, I haven't yet learned my lesson about judging books by their covers.
In this instance, I'm delighted I did pick this book up because of its cover! The blurb was far more promising than anything I'd previously picked up in my pursuit of good steampunk novels (read: steampunk, not paranormal romance). More than that: it promised an explanation (of sorts) for the world it created.
I won't give away too much of the plot, but succinctly: the book begins with Sir Richard Francis Burton (an actual historical figure, as are many others in this trilogy -- a very impressive choice on Hodder's part) learning of his former partner's (John Speke) attempted suicide. Very quickly Hodder establishes an extremely strange world: not the Victorian Era that we know, but rather an 1861 where there is only a King Albert. Strange genetic mutations are technological advances, society is in decay, and it is up to Richard and his poet friend Algernon Swinburne to investigate a series of assaults on young women... committed by the legendary Spring Heeled Jack.
Prior to reading this book, I actually knew relatively few Victorian Era figures, and I certainly knew nothing about Spring Heeled Jack. I did a quick Wikipedia search that filled me in on the legend, and once I continued reading I was promptly mind-blown by Mark Hodder's version of the Spring Heeled Jack myth.
There are a lot of things happening in this book; things, apparently, that are also happening in its two sequels.
The world Hodder creates is unique, even for -- I believe -- the genre of steampunk. It doesn't have ladies in leather or metal corsets running around with guns and clockwork cats, but it does focus on the world and the social context of the early 1860s in this alternate universe. In fact, it's so interesting that for one of the first times in my life, I have enjoyed a book because of the world or the concept more than the characters. This is not to say I disliked the main characters: I merely found them less interesting than they could have been, but Burton and Swinburne get more character development as the trilogy progresses. No, I loved this book because it was innovative, interesting, and just rollicking good fun while also dealing with some serious issues of the old Empires.
I'm currently halfway through the third book in the series, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon. A definite recommendation for anyone who loves steampunk and intelligent alternate universes.
I give this book a 4/5.
Hodder, M. 2010, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Pyr, New York.