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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack - Mark Hodder

Wait, solid covers in the UK and the
US? Poppycock I say!
I love historical fiction.  Shogun by James Clavell, Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham, and Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, are a few of my favorites off the top of my head.  What I love about the genre is how it stimulates me to learn about historical events or individuals that I haven't had an opportunity to pay much attention to.  If an author is clever enough to take this historical fiction element and blend in some science fiction the end result is something I can't help but want to read.  After finishing The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder I feel a great deal of conviction in saying, "Please sir, can I some more?"

Set in London, 1861, Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne stand at a crossroads in their lives. They are caught in the epicenter 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 labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy.

The two men are sucked into this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, commissions Burton to investigate why werewolves are terrorizing London's East End and if there's any connection to the assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack.  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.

As an American, I didn't have a great deal of historical attachment to any of the characters in Strange Affair.  Before cracking it open the only two characters I had any real conception of were Burton himself (only barely), Charles Darwin, and Florence Nightingale (cameo appearances!).  As for the many other historical characters in the novel I was largely blank - although Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a sad oversight on my part.  I can't begin to describe what a pleasent sensation it is to finish a novel and immediately adjourn to wikipedia.  Who knew Spring-Heeled Jack was a real figure? Mark Hodder reminded me that life is stranger than fiction, and life with a heavy dash of fiction is even stranger.

The central figure in the novel is obviously Richard Burton whom represents the paragon of English maleness for the Victorian era.  He is rugged, overtly sexual, and excessively educated.  It's unfortunate that he often seems to possess some incredible powers of deus ex machina.  He always has the answers and manages to be in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances.  Faced with a sword wielding panther man, well wouldn't you know it, Burton is a master swordsman!  This is a minor complaint as Burton's renaissance man capabilities were well established early on and it did little to take away from Hodder's plotting which is - if I'm being frank - masterful.

Most of the novel's early going is spent introducing Burton and "Victorian" London now powered by all kinds of incredible contraptions.  There are message delivering robot dogs, street sweeping crabs, armchair helicopters, and some form of early botox to name a few.  Once all that's out of the way and Burton gets his assignment the novel begins to read a bit like Sherlock Holmes before descending into a paradoxical mind trip.  Paradoxical I say? Yes, not everything in Strange Affair is steampunk and I think calling the novel anything but science fiction obscures the truth.

The real Spring-Heeled Jack!
If what I write here is a bit obscure, I apologize, but it's in an effort to avoid spoiling any of Hodder's twists.  While the novel's early parts are historical urban steampunk, the latter half goes in a disparate direction culminating in a lengthy section told from the point of view of a character other than Burton or Swinburne.  Things very much slow down as this point and scenes become somewhat redundant as Hodder runs through the reasons why in 1840 history as we know it ceased to exist.  I don't begrudge the time spent as the explanations are necessary to unravel his dense plotting.

By the novel's conclusions everything makes sense, which for anyone reading the middle section described above may seem like quite an accomplishment.  None of that would have been possible without some brilliant writing.  I don't mean that Hodder is some kind of wizard of metaphors like Lauren Beukes or an efficient wordsmith like K.J. Parker (although he does write a fine sentence).  Nor has he put together a layered narrative like Lev Grossman.  Instead, what I mean by brilliant writing is that he's written something that feels Victorian, but reads modern.  Compare it to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which feels Victorian and reads the same way leading to an occasionally frustrating experience.  I think it's quite an accomplishment to write a dated voice but make it so easily readable to modern sensibilities.

I've been making up sub-genres lately.  In my Zoo City review I coined urban noir magical realism and now I'm forced conjured up historical science fiction steampunk.  Whatever.  Regardless of what I call Strange Affair it's a premier example of how to do historical fiction through the specfic lens.  Hodder has given readers a tremendous trip into the history books, a dynamite adventure to keep things lively, and a science fiction twist to get the mind working.  Consider me a big fan of Mark Hodder moving forward.  I can't wait to check out the sequel The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

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