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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Mark Hodder. Snowbooks Ltd (2010)

A wonderfully engaging and enjoyable alternative steampunk Victorian adventure. Sir Richard Francis Burton is shocked when the proposed debate with Jon Hanning Speke regarding the source of the Nile is cancelled due to Speke suffering a gunshot injury. Burton, feeling a little stranded in his life is recruited by the Prime Minister. Lord Palmerston to be the "King's Spy", to investigate problems that need to be managed discreetly. The first case is to investigate Spring Heeled Jack, a strange figure who has assaulted a number of young women. The story unfolds with tremendous momentum, constantly surprising and intriguing details of  unexpected inventions. The reveals are cunningly staged and the plot threads are pulled very tightly.
Mark Hodder takes as very considerable risk at the key point in the story that could easily have derailed the whole project, instead it weaves cunningly back into the narrative and provides a critical perspective that ensure that the conclusion is both satisfying and packs an emotional punch
This is not the England of Queen Victoria, it is the England of King Albert, a time when industrial and social forces struggling for dominance and power, this is an alternative route for history where unexpected knowledge allows a genius to imagine and execute new technology which in turn pushes society into cleverly conceived new directions. Mark Hodder has a number of story problems to solve to deliver a successful steam punk fantasy and he manages all of them with confidence and skill. The cast have to be recognisable as versions of the historical originals, otherwise the critical tension between history and the alternative is lost and the steampunk impact is essentially lost. Mark Hodder has used enough of the essential details of the significant cast to allow them to be alternatives of themselves, free standing in the context of the story and still in touch with their  historical avatars. The widely altered and still recognisable details of Victorian England allow the steam punk elements to function to the fullest extent. The steampunk elements have to be both steam and punk, they have to be an accelerated and old fashioned solutions to problems and Mark Hodder has a masterful control and expressive imagination that delivers the most astonishingly suitable steam punk elements.
The large cast are bold, energetic and all have a chance to register with the reader. From Richard Burton himself to a retired street lamp lighter they all speak for themselves and have something to say. The relationship between the plot mechanics and the cast is managed beautifully, the way that actions and reactions ripple against each other is gripping. Mark Hodder boldly sets up story possibilities and never undermines his own terms.   This is a glorious stew of a book, it has sharp ideas that are fully realised and memorable cast, a delight and a very considerable achievement.



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