Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 4 stars
Length: On the long side (371 pages in trade paperback)
Publication: September 7, 2010 from Pyr
Premise: Sir Richard Francis Burton is on the verge of a debate about the source of the Nile when he learns that his opponent and former friend has shot himself. On the way back from an evening of mourning with friends, he's assaulted by a lightning-covered man on stilts who knows far too much about him and beats him senseless before jumping into the air and vanishing. The next day he's offered a position as an agent of the king, throwing him into investigations and derailing the life he'd been planning. Algernon Charles Swinburne, a young poet seeking to find life by facing death, joins him in investigating the changes that are rippling through time.
Warnings: many instances of swift molestation in the form of ripping clothes off and running, plans to rape and impregnate underage girls (these plans never reach fruition)
Recommendation: This one is brilliant fun to read; it's rare to see worldbuilding blend research and the imagination so well. This, to me, is what steampunk mysteries are supposed to be; absolutely give it a try if you're looking for something new and unusual.

What makes this world so wonderfully quirky: 

Most of the time, steampunk worldbuilding extends as far as the technology with a coating of Victorian culture, but Mark Hodder reworks an entire timeline to be full of new mechanisms and ideas, not to mention hints that magic may have a place later on. Time split long before the changes came to the attention of more than a tiny handful of people, so the societal and technological splits are fully ingrained in the scenery. The castes are by far the best aspect of this; the edges of society have split into two large factions, the Technologists and the Libertines. The Technologists are invested in everything from advanced rotorship design to genetically modifying animals, usually with entertaining results. The Libertines are more wary of technology, proposing that beauty and pleasure ought to be the guiding principles of the future.

These changes to the culture feel truly pervasive: each chapter opens with a quote or ad to help set the tone. The Broomcat ad feels note-perfect for the tone of the times, and we later see a Broomcat in the text, which isn't the case for most of the other ads. It isn't highlighted or used as a callback; we're simply shown that these genetically modified cats are useful for picking up dirt with their hair, and it blends in. Most of the specially bred creatures have unintended side effects: giant horses produce extra-large manure for everyone to step in, while messenger parakeets swear at and insult their users. Many of those creatures serve to advance the plot, but they mostly help build a background that starts to feel as intrinsic to London as the fog itself. Hodder has really thought out all the castes and technology, and it shows in all the best ways.

Refreshingly, these changes don't drown out the existing history that Hodder uses as a starting point. We're shown that Burton had a prior friendship-turned-rivalry with John Speke, his companion on the expeditions to find the source of the Nile, and the night of their debate helps set the rest of the novel in motion. It's fascinating to hear about things like Darwin stirring up controversy with his theories, as he actually did, and then seeing what sorts of things he did with the options presented in the split timeline. Many characters with recognizable historical names show up in this fashion, and it does a brilliant job of underscoring the book's motif of free will. When people see an opportunity to change something, they seize it and warp time around themselves.

After much suspense and speculation about whether it's all supernatural, we're finally shown how this new timeline spawned; it's one of the best time travel sequences I've ever read, winning hands-down for horrifying inevitability looping back on itself. One person reaches back in an attempt to make a comparatively minor change, makes a mistake along the way, and then tries to fix it, with more and more consequences rippling outward and conspiring to stop him. His sanity erodes with each failed attempt to remake the future he left....which admittedly may not take much, since for someone inventing time travel he doesn't seem to have thought through some pretty basic aspects of how the timeline might work, or had the full complement of normal sanity even at the beginning. That aside, seeing events in order from both Burton's perspective and the time traveler's perspective makes for brilliantly suspenseful reading. The time traveler is both a sympathetic character and a menace who wants to go home and is losing touch with his ethics, and the shifts are note-perfect.

Algernon Charles Swinburne is the glorious bright spot of this book; in the interest of full disclosure, he's one of my favorite poets. I'm not so much a fan of the way Hodder has him "shrilling" something every other page, but seeing a tiny ginger poet with no experience in combat as the sidekick works startlingly well. He's resourceful and willing to put himself into tight spots for reasons that align quite well with his existing poetry: without exposing himself to danger and death, he can't feel alive. Working with Burton allows him to experience life at the edge, and I'm not sure I've ever seen someone take a beating from a villain quite the way he did. For those of you who don't drown yourselves in Victorian poetry, Swinburne was in fact a masochist with a keen interest in de Sade; between that and the thrill-seeking, he's laughing at the pleasurable stinging while he's getting beaten three-quarters to death. It's a highly unusual move, but one that works for the character and gives him an air of demented fearlessness.

Burton's own reflection is that "few poets looked so much a poet as Algernon Charles Swinburne," and pictures of the poet in his younger days confirm it. He makes a good madcap influence, ready to venture forth new ideas at the drop of a hat and fervently compose poetry when he's too weak to stand. Even, or perhaps especially, in the face of danger, he's ready to see the sheer fun of it, reminding the reader that yes, he's on a box kite flown by a giant swan, and if that's not delightful then what's the point of living?

The red pen: 

Richard Francis Burton himself is unfortunately the biggest problem with this novel, given his absurd mastery of everything he touches. His linguistic and cultural expertise is entirely plausible, given that the actual historical figure did in fact speak twenty-nine languages and disguise himself so well that he blended in as an Arabic man in Mecca itself. No, the problem comes when the skill set expands beyond that. The historical Burton was in the army, so some degree of fighting competence is reasonable, but this Burton....well.

It is not feasible for one person to speak that many languages, be one of the finest swordsmen in Europe, be so good at unarmed combat that no natural man can take him down, have a flawless grasp of geography and other sciences, understand the subtleties of forensics better than the trained police force, be an expert in mesmerism, and "instinctively" use unfamiliar technology and weapons with such ease that he's better than their trained users. In all seriousness, claiming that instinct led him to make exactly the right midair maneuver when he's driving a rotorchair for the first time had me rolling my eyes. The scene where he was in the middle of an armed crowd and was so skilled that none of the many other swordsmen could even graze him was worse. If you are surrounded by people holding enormous pieces of sharp metal, they're all trying to hit you, and you're by yourself, you're going to get cut. This is like expecting gravity to work, and when it doesn't then the tension deflates like a leaky balloon.

Making your protagonist something of a Renaissance man is one thing, but making him better than everyone at every useful skill (treading toward being a Mary Sue) makes it less fun. If Burton is evenly matched in a duel with an antagonist the first time they fight, what on earth justifies him being faster and better in every future encounter they have, to the point where he can toy with his opponent? The answer appears to be "because it was convenient to the plot for him to lose that time." On some level, readers are aware that things will often tend to work in defiance of the odds for the protagonist, and that's fine; piling stupidly impossible levels of skill on top of that bends the suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. This really should detract from the book more than it does, but "this man is too good at things" really doesn't show in individual scenes, only in retrospect when you're trying to put your finger on where and why he actually had trouble with anything.

The other large problem here centers on the romantic interests. Burton has known Isabel Arundell for a decade and been certain he was going to marry her for the past year; when he's offered a job as a king's agent and told that it's no role for a married man, he has to break it off. Nevertheless, spending the majority of that conversation being cold to her and reproaching her for past impulsive actions instead of apologizing just isn't the act of the fundamentally decent person he seems to be the rest of the time. When Swinburne asks why he's moody he says he doesn't want to talk about it, presumably because he's sad, but we scarcely hear about her or any regrets he might have for over a hundred pages. This would be better if we saw a portrait of Isabel beyond "she loves Burton and is impulsive," or if Burton wasn't starting to shop around for a sexy new love interest at before he had that conversation with Isabel.

Sadhvi, a nurse at the ward from which Speke was kidnapped after his injury, isn't a bad character in her own right. Her Indian background means that she knows about things like mesmerism and is better able to understand Burton's experiences than most people in London. Nevertheless, she unfortunately has a lot of the same issues that Isabel does in terms of how she's written. Her focus very quickly snaps onto Burton and whatever he's doing, demanding to be around him and help....entirely on his terms. It very much reads as Burton disliking Isabel's impulsiveness and then being drawn to both Sadhvi's exoticism and her willingness to do whatever he says while only having enough daring to keep things interesting.

Yes, their interactions are more heated than outright sexual, though his first thought is essentially "wow, she looks like someone I had sex with once." That said, they don't have to be sexual in order to be problematic. Within minutes of their first meeting Burton has dismissed the chaperone, and later on he shows up to whisk her away alone. She agrees because the situation is urgent, but the second time is contrived. A friend is injured, Burton needs help, and so he goes to find....a nurse, who we've never seen display skills beyond reading to patients. He goes to her lodgings instead of taking that friend to one of London's hospitals or a private physician; anyone injured as often as he is surely knows of one or two. Yes, propriety is tiresome by modern standards, but it served as a bit of protection for women at the time and Burton is doing this: 1) after letting Isabel do similar things to her reputation only to leave her, and 2) when he knows that there's no chance of marriage even if the scandal does hurt her. It's a contrived excuse to get Nurse Sexual Tension back in the story, and Burton is behaving atrociously by risking a friend's health based on attraction.

Quips, the newsboy who sometimes passes Burton information, is sadly someonce Hodder thought would be funny and then relentlessly overplays. He's referred to as Quips, young Oscar, and finally Oscar Wilde for the slow people in the audience who hasn't recognized the half-dozen iconic Wilde quotes dropping from the lips of a child. One or two quotes would be worth a chuckle, but he seems to drop in, have a very short conversation, and then exit in a whirl of "look at this clever quote that came from my adult self in the other timeline!" Children can be intelligent, certainly, but many of Wilde's best gems came at the height of a life of drunken cynicism, and not many of them work as things that a child would plausibly say. When so many other historical characters from this timeline are perfect in their shifted roles, Oscar is more jarring by contrast.

Overall, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is a great read: just pretend that Burton is some past version of Batman with the associated improbable utility belt of skills, lean back, and enjoy the ride.

Prospects: The third book, Expedition of the Mountains of the Moon, came out in January. It supposedly completes the three-volume arc, but that's an ambiguous framing; at a guess, Hodder may or may not write more in the future and wants to leave the door open. 

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Something else steampunk. I really haven't read enough of the sub-genre to have found things I love that resemble this, but check back in a few months! I'll be updating these sections on each post as the blog goes, especially once I have legitimate suggestions that aren't "this book I read once with rotorships in it" or "some thing I saw on the Amazon list of related items."

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