This week’s selection for “Down the Stacks” is the first volume in the steampunk / alternate history series of “Mark Hodder Present Burton and Swinburne in…” The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. It’s a lovely mixture of historical fact, pulpy science fiction, and Victorian British manners.
The year is AD 1861 and the British Empire is still going strong, but England is not quite how the history book you’re familiar with paint it. For one thing, the Queen who would give her name to this era, Victoria, is twenty years dead because an assassination attempt that should have failed was actually successful. In the intervening time, technology has advanced to include things like steam-powered motorbikes, cabs pulled by steam engines, and even personal (steam-powered) helicopters, and at the same time a faction of eugenicists have taken Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution to the mad science extreme to breed animals that instinctively perform tasks like deliver messages and haul people through the air in box kites. In this not-really-Victorian world, famed explorer and linguist Sir Richard Francis Burton is recruited as a “king’s agent” to investigate reports of werewolves attacking people and abducting boys and Burton’s own encounter with the mysterious bogeyman known as Spring Heeled Jack.
The interesting thing about this book is that the majority of the cast, both heroes and villains, are drawn from history, but the accuracy of the portrayals to their real-life counterparts varies wildly. I looked Richard Francis Burton up on Wikipedia and saw that Mark Hodder’s version is as true to the original’s history and presumed personality as the alternate history setting allows. Burton is a bit of Renaissance man with a particular knack for languages and cultures both foreign and local, skills that he once employed to undertake the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca without anyone discovering that he was an Englishman (that really happened) and which he uses in the story to move about the lower districts of London on his information searches. In his “king’s agent” role, Burton comes across as a version of Sherlock Holmes which lacks the antisocial attributes and works for the government. I suppose that makes him more of a Mycroft than a Sherlock.
The other half of “Burton and Swinburne” is Algernon Charles Swinburne, an important poet of the Victorian age. If Burton is compared to Sherlock, then Swinbunre would naturally be considered the Watson, except that the comparison is hardly apt. Swinburne is hyperactive, a thrill-seeker, and an avowed follower of the Marquis de Sade (the guy from whom we get the word “sadist”). He’s also not as consistently present in Spring Heeled Jack was a Watson-type would have to be; for most of the book he only meets up with Burton to discuss the artistic True Libertine and morally bankrupt Rake factions as they relate to Burton’s investigations, only becoming an active member of the investigation near the climax. His excitable antics provide a little comic relief, but there’s never any doubt that he does treat matters with the seriousness they deserve.
To speak about the historical characters who play antagonistic roles in the book would spoil a lot of the mystery. Suffice it to say that none of them would appear out of place in an old sci-fi B-movie or a pulp magazine story. Spring Heeled Jack gets the pulp treatment as heavily as the rest: he’s a man going around on spring-loaded stilts wearing a strange suit with a glowing blue light on the chest and a black helmet frequently wreathed in blue flames. He also has a habit of disappearing into thin air when he jumps away from a scene, and his behavior in the few times he and Burton actually encounter one another makes it easy to deduce that he’s not movign through time in the same way as everyone else. His motives and methods form the biggest mystery in the book, but the role of Big Bad Guy actually falls to someone else.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack would be a fun read for anyone with an interest in history - real or alternative - steam-punk, pulp sci-fi, or science fiction in general. The historical exposition sections are integrated well into the narrative and provide enough interesting details to give the reader a general idea of who everyone is, and there’s an appendix at the end which provides little summaries on what each historical character actually said or did in the timeframe of the book’s plot. The historical details might come across as a little obscure to some people, but there’s always places like Wikipedia that can fill in the gaps. The transition from reasonable steampunk alternate history to full-blown pulpy sci-fi is gentle and smooth on one’s suspension of disbelief. The pacing starts on a high level and never really lags; if Burton isn’t braving the East End while disguised as an old sailor or engaged in life-or-death fights, then he’s in his study or a pub gathering data on werewolf attacks and Spring Heeled Jack sightings or putting the clues together and determining his next move.
I’ll be looking into the rest of the Burton & Swinburne books in the future. It seems like a series too good to ignore.