I don’t make a point of reading steampunk novels but I am a bit of a sucker for Moorcockian alternate history re-imaginings. I also enjoy pulpy sensationalism ala Sax Rohmer and Dennis Wheatly, so I guess it was inevitable that I would eventually read Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. Besides, how could I resist such an idea? Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne fighting crime? I’m there! I’ve long been a fan of Philip Jose Farmer’s amazing Riverworld series, which certainly doesn’t fall into that category, so I’ve often wondered why authors of historical fiction haven’t mined the life of Burton more exhaustively yet, outside of the odd detective novel or passing reference. It definitely lends itself to imaginative reconstruction.
Anyway, Mark Hodder (the creator of the Blakiana website, dedicated to the fictional detective Sexton Blake) saw the potential and pounced, which is fine by me, since he did a really good job with this novel, which is the first of a projected series, apparently. Let’s hope the next installments will be as good. The story takes place in a steampunk version of Victorian London (obviously) and revolves around the well-known mystery of Spring-Heeled Jack, a series of sightings and attacks that took place from the 1830s to the 1880s around London by a person of singularly weird appearance, who was able to perform extraordinarily high jumps.
England is in the throes of massive social and political upheaval: the faction of the Engineers continuously introduces new technological inventions and the Eugenicists develop genetically modified animals for unpaid labour; the opposing faction of the Libertines preach the free aesthetic appreciation of life, while the Rakes, an offshoot of the Libertines, go even further with their unrestricted magical, sexual and anarchic practices. In the midst of all of this, Francis Burton, newly returned from Africa and confronted with the treachery caused by his former friend and colleague John Hanning Speke, is drafted by the Prime Minister of England as King’s Spy, in order to investigate the mysterious attacks and the disappearance of Speke. Accompanied by the poet and aesthete Algernon Swinburne, Burton’s search leads to the corrupt heart of British politics and the possibility that his world shouldn’t exist at all.
It might sound like Hodder bit off more than he could chew, but he pulls it off admirably. The world is effortlessly described because Hodder is in no haste to introduce various technological or social developments. Burton and Swinburne… reads like the product of a contemporary in terms of its observations and the integration of all the aspects of life. The sporadic insertion of advertisements in the body of the narrative is a brilliant move that serves to convey detail without Hodder having to tell us about it. In this sense, as well as in its subject matter, it is really close to comic books like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Warren Ellis’ recent Aetheric Mechanics and Captain Swing.
The story is full of great grotesques and cool ideas, a lot of them very funny, like modified parrots with Tourette’s, a devilish albino swordsman (an homage to Moorcock’s Elric?), steamhorses, werewolves that spontaneously combust, rotorcars and that’s not taking into account what Hoddder has chosen to do with Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, among others…
Hodder’s writing follows closely the pulp writing of the day in all its colonial, sensationalist glory. Burton and Swinburne… is a rollicking, old-school, unpretentious pulp adventure and I enjoyed every single page. The narrative is brilliantly paced and ingeniously plotted. Hodder stayed close to the original sources of his story and built his plot around them. As the narrative progresses, the reader becomes increasingly more aware of how organically Hodder has incorporated the steampunk element and accounted for the Spring-Heeled Jack incident. The two elements become causally intertwined easily and logically, as Hodder makes sure to provide clues almost from the beginning. In terms of sheer structure, Burton and Swinburne… is definitely reminiscent of Victorian pastiches like Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx and Michael Cox’s criminally overlooked The Meaning of Night.
Considering that this is a first novel, it is a fine achievement and it sets pretty high standards for Hodder’s follow-up. Please do not let us down, sir.