Pyr, Trade Paperback
Author Web site: http://www.sextonblake.co.uk/
Urban legends, creatures out of folklore, and real life heroes converge in Mark Hodder’s fantastic debut novel, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. The urban legend is the Spring-Heeled Jack of the title, the creatures out of folklore are werewolves, and the real life hero is protagonist Sir Richard Burton, among others.
For those not in the know, Spring-Heeled Jack is a mythical character/creature of English Victorian folklore described by some as a boogeyman and others as a hero. Regardless, the character has strong ties to the Victorian era and lends very well to being the center of a steampunk novel, which is the case here in Hodder’s novel. Though his appearances are limited through the first half of the novel, Jack has more of a boogeymanish air to the characters, particularly Sir Richard Burton, who encounter him. The first half of the novel does a fine job of setting the stage and bringing Richard Burton and Algernon Swineburne together, this novel is after all the first in Hodder’s chronicles of their adventures together.
The second half of the story focuses on Spring Heeled Jack himself. Here, Hodder could have easily dropped the ball. Although his appearances were few in the first half, Jack had a major impact driving the narrative. He was enigmatic and in many ways unknowable. Hodder reveals the background and it is just as interesting a character under greater scrutiny as it was when his true nature was mysterious.
Hodder not only shifts focal characters, he shifts styles from steampunk mystery to … something different. Revealing more could remove some enjoyment from the discovery of what the change is but suffice it to say that Hodder just barely pulls it off.
Setting the story in Victorian times, the most popular of Steampunk settings, allows Hodder to play with history and famous people. For instance, Charles Darwin has a role, as does Florence Nightingale, Oscar Wilde, of course the characters who lend their names to the series of books – Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swineburne, and perhaps more importantly, Queen Victoria, who was murdered in this world which as the story progresses, becomes a key to the entire novel.
With Burton and Swineburne, Hodder gives the readers a play on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, but with much greater historical gravitas. Burton becomes a “King’s Agent” specifically charged with locating and Spring Heeled Jack and ending his terror-inducing appearances as well as finding the werewolves who are said to have abducted local chimney sweeps. The play on history also sets up two societal factions strongly at odds with each other – the Technologists and the Libertine. Consequently, both Burton and Swineburne go undercover to determine if Spring-Heeled Jack has a connection to either of the “warring” groups.
Clearly, Hodder is a smart writer who has fun at his chosen trade. What may seem initially as a jarring shift, in reflective context is actually a calculated risk and, more importantly from a storytelling perspective, logical. The book was entertaining, if at times unevenly paced. Like many of the novels Pyr’s published in its relatively short history, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a beautifully designed book, from the color choice/use and eye-popping art of Jon Sullivan to the font and layout. The book completely matches the tone of the story, something which Lou Anders and company often manage to accomplish. Though self contained with the story of the novel coming to full resolution, Hodder’s series of a Steampunk Dynamic Duo is off to a shining start that begs the reader to read the book through a pair of brass goggles whilst wearing a top hat. Great fun indeed, and an impressive debut.
© 2011 Rob H. Bedford