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The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (A Burton & Swinburne Adventure) Paperback – September 1, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
A historical figure already larger than life, Capt. Sir Richard Francis Burton, pursues a legendary and violent Victorian creature, Spring Heeled Jack, at the behest of the prime minister in this convincingly researched debut. Fans of steampunk will be intrigued by the alternate history setting, in which the queen dies mid-century; they will also enjoy following Burton and his sidekick, poet Algernon Swinburne, as they investigate the dark secrets of 19th-century England and recall Burton's legendary expedition to find the source of the Nile. Burton is an intriguing character, but the story might have benefited by more than token appearances of his intrepid fiancée, Isabel Arundell, and better integration of the fantastical elements--werewolves, time travelers--into the narrative before a wild ending that pulls everything together.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* The usual superlatives for really clever fantasy (imaginative, mind-bending, phantasmagorical) aren’t nearly big enough for this debut novel. With this one book, Hodder has put himself on the genre map. The time is 1861; the place, London, England. The country is besieged by loups-garous (werewolves), and Spring Heeled Jack, the notorious (and possibly mythical) creature who appears out of nowhere to accost young women, is causing a bit of a ruckus. To deal with these problems, the prime minister recruits Sir Richard Francis Burton, the noted explorer, linguist, and self-promoter. With the help of his friend, the poet Algernon Swinburne, Burton wades in with both feet and uncovers a frightening conspiracy and a (potentially) world-altering technology. And that’s just the bare-bones story of this wildly inventive—another insufficient superlative—novel. Hodder has brilliantly combined various genre staples—time travel, alternate reality, steampunk—into something you’ve never quite seen before. His mid-nineteenth-century Britain features steam-driven velocipedes, rotorchairs, verbally abusive messenger parrots, a pneumatic rail system, and robotic street cleaners. The book’s supporting characters include Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Francis Galton, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the revolutionary civil engineer (although Hodder uses them in excitingly twisted new ways). The book is incredibly ambitious, and the author pulls it off like an old pro: not only is the setting exciting and fresh, the story is thrilling and full of surprises. Hodder’s only problem now is to find a way to follow up this exhilarating debut, which will appeal not only to sf/fantasy readers but also to mystery and historical-fiction fans. --David Pitt
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This incredibly detailed and richly imagined alternate universe is amazing. Hodder has created realistic literature, political movements, and technology. He has taken one of the great Victorian heroes, Burton, and given him a role that is believable based on his real-life personality. The plot is dense, and requires thought to follow, and is not fully predictable.
This first-of-a-series is a strong piece of steampunk fantasy that is enjoyable, entertaining, and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it!
Then all hell breaks loose. In a good way. This version of 1861 isn't what we read in the history books. It includes steam powered flying chairs, insulting messenger parakeets, genetically engineered werewolves, robotic street cleaners and all sorts of goodies. Most of the characters are famous Victorians, or in this world Albertians given that Victoria was shot to death in 1840 (a real life attempt that was fatal in this alternate history).
The voice of the novel is third person, medium tight and usually riding with Burton. It does, however, jump over to some others occasionally like his side kick the Marquis-de-Sade-loving poet Algernon Swinburne and the title character. The tone is slightly flip, as the inventions and wackiness is just left of possible. Yet things remain consistently period and the characters are well researched and full of era-appropriate dialog, but also clever and engaging.
About midway, the book, already getting weird, goes totally off the the deep end. Enter Spring-Heeled Jack, crazy time traveler, and a host of steampunk altered villains including a double-brain grafted Charles Darwin and an Iron Golemized Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But this zaniness only makes the novel better. I'm reminded of one of my all time favorites, The Anubis Gates, but TSAOSHJ is less magical, more grounded in technology.
Bravo! This book really shows off tremendous world building and research while remaining fast paced and easy to read. If it has anything that holds it back from being a complete classic, it's that the characters, while well developed, don't really illicit any significant pathos. Things are just a little too distant and weird for that. It's not a huge book, and Hodder crams in an enormously distinct world, so it's no surprise this isn't a character study. Still, I do feel that the complex character of Burton was well profiled, almost like in a good biography. Impressive.
I read this right after putting down another steampunk book, Clockwork Angel, just 20% in. Wow, what a difference. Both are set in alternate 19th century Londons, but other than a couple random "period words," CA feels exactly the same as the author's contemporary paranormal YA, with all its forced faux-romance. TSAOSHJ, on the other hand, is an adult book, and makes use of one's babbage augmented, steam-powered, glass jar encased, cybernetic brain.
Andy Gavin, author of The Darkening Dream
I listened to this on audiobook and the audiobook was well done. The narrator did an excellent job of distinguishing between different character voices. The narrator’s voice was very English and did an excellent job of blending with the story setting.
Sir Richard Francis Burton is an explorer extraordinaire. His most recent expedition has left his reputation in tatters and his partner from the expedition is in grave condition. When he is given a chance to serve as the King’s agent in the case of Spring Heeled Jack, he is eager to prove his worth. At his side is Algernon Charles Swinburne, a failed poet who finds pain a most delightful pastime.
I enjoyed all the steampunk elements and the interesting world, but had a lot of trouble engaging with the characters. I also thought the plot was a bit scattered and wrapped up too conveniently.
Burton is a bit too perfect of a character, he pretty much excels at everything. He is portrayed as a noble and misunderstood hero of discovery. He excels at languages, fighting, scholarly pursuits, mesmerism, and pretty much everything he does. He is so perfect that I honestly had trouble liking him at all.
Swinburne is an odd character. He has no sense of fear and follows de Sade, meaning he finds pleasure in pain. He does a good job of balancing out Burton’s melodrama with his plucky personality. But I also found him kind of irritating and naive.
One of the most fascinating characters is Spring Heeled Jack. He has a very interesting back story and what starts out as a trip to change history a tiny bit ends up forcing Spring Heeled Jack into a descent into madness.
The plot is a bit scattered. There are a number of factions and groups of people that are seemingly involved in separate events. By the end of the book it all ties together but in a fairly convoluted way. It all worked out and made sense, but the process of getting there was scattered and at times a bit hard to follow. I got a bit weary of the time travel aspects to the plotline....time travel gets too complicated and convoluted.
The first part of the book is told primarily from Burton’s POV. The last third is told mainly from Spring Heeled Jack’s POV. This worked fairly well for the story.
It was an interesting read and very creative. It is well enough written. Things wrap up fairly well. The epilogue starts the next storyline.
Overall this was a decent steampunk read. I enjoyed the world, thought the plot was a bit scattered, and had some trouble engaging with the characters. Some of the story was intriguing but by the end I just wanted to be done with the book. I am unsure right now as to whether or not I will read the next book in this series.
I would tentatively recommend this book to steampunk fans who don’t mind quirky (and slightly annoying) characters. I would more strongly recommend A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series or Meljean Brooke’s Iron Seas series (which has more romance than the others but also an incredibly well done steampunk world).
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