‘The Aylesford Skull’, written by James P. Blaylock, certainly comes highly recommended. Various words of praise from other authors in similar fields as well as the description of the author as a “steampunk legend” adorn the cover, and you could be forgiven for thinking that these words might be a bit overblown when you first pick it up. Nevertheless, you know what they say about judging books – and with this one you certainly have to go a lot deeper in order to get the full measure of it and how good it might be.
The folks at Titan Books were kind enough to send us a review copy in exchange for our honest thoughts.
The plot follows one Langdon St Ives, a man who seems to do nothing more than scour the country looking for trouble and dream about outlandish inventions – such as his new airship, which is going to require him to purchase an elephant so that he can power the motor on the roof of his barn, opening it up in order to let the airship out. There is a fair dose of the steampunk kind of machinery throughout the book, though rather than feeling forced and contrived it fits in quite nicely for the most part with this view of Victorian London – and if it were not for the fact that the airship does indeed show up, you can almost put these musings in the realm of the kind of conjecture that the Victorians were known for, so there is nothing here that will feel too strange or overdone for those who are not well acquainted with the steampunk genre. When we begin the story, St Ives is facing off against an old nemesis by the name of Dr Narbondo, who captures his only son for no doubt nefarious purposes and who St Ives must pursue in order to try and get him back. Thankfully, a lot of the back story here is explained as you go, so not knowing St Ives and his previous adventures will only mean that it takes you a little bit longer to really get into the story than it will for those who have read the previous books about him.
Many elements of the story grow in a way that intertwines, and so although we follow quite a wide cast of characters you will often find their lives intersecting, and indeed at some points the majority of them are all in the same place and seeing the same incident from different perspectives. In most cases this is very satisfying as you get to build up a complete picture through what different characters have seen, though at times it can suffer a little bit from slowing the pace down and making you wait to get back to the main events while one character has to travel towards them or come to a realisation about something, which by about the fourth or fifth instance actually starts to become quite infuriating. It is a compliment to the work itself though that you are so keen to get back to the main storyline, as the plot quickly becomes very compelling and you want to find out whether they will get to the bottom of things, save the boy, and stop Dr Narbondo’s evil plans – whatever they might be, as for most of the book we as well as the protagonists are quite in the dark about them.
The characterisation is very good, and there are a number of characters who are seen by different people and yet described in such a way that we can understand it is the same person they are seeing, such as the ubiquitous George, who starts to become quite exciting as he pops up time and time again right in the thick of things. One addition to the cast which will perhaps make non-steampunk fans wince is the figure of Arthur Conan Doyle, although it is with a sigh of relief that I can report that he is not overplayed here. He does not try to deduce anyone and nor does he make any Holmesian remarks, but he does manage to employ the boxing for which he was known quite skilfully in a few bare knuckle fights. In fact, you almost start to wonder why he has been included at all, since anyone else could have filled in just as well. As we progress through the book there is a great sense of getting to know many of the characters, which only serves to heighten the drama as they are thrown into danger, with Dr Narbondo’s plan laid out before them at last and the chance to stop it if they dare to.
When it all finally comes to a close the results are quite satisfying, particularly when it comes to the technology that is perhaps the least believable part of the book – we will not give any more details here in case of spoiling it for anyone, but rest assured that those who feel as though the airship or other details are farfetched will be pleased with the ending nonetheless. There is a great sense of style about the book which really can be felt through every part of it – a kind of weaving of the storyline which is almost Victorian in itself and might remind you of Dickens, along with a much more modern tone that will make it more accessible to the modern audience. It is for the most part set in London, and you will find areas of the city being name dropped on a regular basis, so those who have lived there or are familiar with the layout of the parts which have remained the same since Victorian times will very much enjoy tracing the characters’ journeys along roads and bridges and near buildings which do, and did, exist, as well as seeing the inventions of the steampunk age nestled in amongst them.
Overall this is a good read, and once you get over that initial hurdle of sorting out who everyone is and what exactly is going on you will find that it starts to become very compelling, so that you are anxious to get to the end – and that more than anything is the sign of a good book.