Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder
This review is printed in Bull Spec Issue #4, which is the current issue available on newsstands. You really should have purchased a copy by now.
The hallmark of all speculative fiction is the question “what if?” In The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, we get to explore one such question: What if Edward Oxford had managed to assassinate Queen Victoria in 1840? How would the world have changed if that one event had turned out differently?
From the very start, you get the feeling that the nineteenth century London that Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Charles Swinburne live in isn’t the Victorian setting we expect. Albert is King of the British Empire, for starters, and Victoria is long-dead. We are treated to steam powered velocipedes, flying rotorchairs, and genetically engineered messenger animals—specifically, constantly hungry dogs and foul-mouthed parakeets. No, this isn’ t your garden variety Victorian steampunk setting, but the result is a wonderful and almost fantastical place where science has progressed in miraculous leaps.
But how did all this come into existence in the short twenty-one years since the death of Queen Victoria? It does lead to a lot of questions, and Hodder went to great lengths to make sure the story in Spring-Heeled Jack was as complicated and twisted as possible, keeping you on your toes as you continue reading, hoping to puzzle out some new plot element he tossed in. Even the end of the book was not easy to predict, especially when he introduces yet another plot element—time travel.
The scientists of this time line aren’t the inventors of time travel. Its source is a traveler from the future, coming to the past to prevent an event from happening. The introduction of the time traveler starts to knit the story together. Answers to questions start to take shape, such as how such advanced knowledge could be possible in 1861, or how some people seem to be in several places at once. And while I can tell this element was an integral part of the complex plot, it felt severely out of place in a steampunk world.
The real polish in this book comes from the effort Hodder put into researching this story, allowing him to delve deep into minute details, things that make a story come alive on the pages. The people, places, and events of London 1861 exist, but with differences reflected in the changed world they live in. Burton and Swinburne in particular were a joy to read about, their interactions and attitudes toward life in their London and abroad. Humor from the duo is well timed and helps break up the tension in many areas of the book. All of the characters were enjoyable, even the villains in their mad scientist ways and actions.
This is an action packed and exciting read, just be ready to get over the time travel hurdle, which may be a turn off to some steampunk purists. Hodder’s knowledge of British history shines through in this epic piece and casts a new look at a steampunk London that could have been. Gripping to the last, the book leaves you wanting to read more of their adventures. The wait will not be long: Burton and Swinburne will return in Hodder’s next novel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, due out in March of 2011.