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Monday, May 2, 2011

The Folly in Using Time to Change the Past (on monsters, mayhem, & more)

We’d all like a re-do now and then, wouldn’t we? After royally mucking up something--saying or doing the exact wrong thing--think how fabulous it would be to have a second chance to make things right.


Therein lies the problem, of course: it’s not possible; for there to be any second chances, we’d need the ability to go back in time.


Ah, but what if time travel were possible... if we had the technology and know-how to traipse back and forth between present and past? If we had the opportunity to go back and undo whatever--and then, to do it differently--wouldn’t most of us take it?


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At a large (and highly-anticipated) London congregation of geographers, naturalists, botanists, and journalists in 1861, the stage is set for Sir Richard Francis Burton, famed (and famously-controversial) world explorer and linguist, to--hopefully--lay waste to some of the spurious claims recently made by his former-friend-and-exploring-partner, Mr. John Hanning Speke. Tonight will be Sir Richard’s opportunity to publicly have it out with the other man once and for all, questioning Speke’s negligent scientific techniques during their joint exploration of the Nile, as well as his chance to deny the behaviors (of a rather-more-personal and unsavory nature) of which Speke has so boldly accused him. (Having long been in the doldrums--and somewhat in the bottle--over the curious set of circumstances surrounding the demise of their once-solid friendship, Sir Richard even holds out hope that this evening might set the stage for a reconciliation. Ah, sweet hope.)


Before the night has barely begun, though, something shocking happens which knocks Sir Richard for a loop: news arrives that Speke has been shot in the head, by his own hand, and that survival is doubtful. There will be no debate to clear the air (or mend any fences) tonight.


Nor, as is about to become apparent, will anything ever be the same for Sir Richard again.


Thus begins newcomer Mark Hodder’s extraordinary tale, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, as it more or less recounts these events just as the history books tell us they occurred. It is also, however, the last time in which our story and the history books concur, because from this point, Hodder gallops off in a most-surprising, wildly-inventive, and thoroughly-satisfying direction.


In this version of Sir Richard’s life, you see, he doesn’t get married shortly after the above tragedy and then proceed to get shuttled about from one boring consulship to another. No, Hodder lets his Sir Richard have considerably-more fun and excitement, when the Prime Minister--with the approval of King Albert--appoints him as a very special sort of investigator, one who will work in conjunction with Scotland Yard on some of their most-perplexing cases.


Wait... what? King Who, in 1861??


Ah, yes... told you this was a different sort of history, didn’t I? In this telling, poor Queen Victoria--only three years into her reign--was assassinated at the tender age of 20, leaving (after some necessary Parliamentary shenanigans) hubby Albert her successor.


But back to Sir Richard. He’s ushered immediately into his new job (for which he summarily breaks off his engagement, by the way, since the sort of dangers he’ll be facing leave no safe place for a wife) with a pair of exceedingly-vexing cases. In the first, a figure out of folklore--and to many people, a mere figment of the imagination--has reappeared, and is causing quite a stir: Spring Heeled Jack, the strange fellow with a circus-like appearance, is a literal bodice-ripper, going about accosting young women and leaving them with torn garments, and always escaping before he can be captured. (With the female population understandably scared out of their collective wits, this is a situation which must be stopped.)


The second case is no less bizarre; as improbable as it sounds, London is also in the midst of a series of attacks by roving bands of loups-garous (aka werewolves, to you and me), which are in the habit of leaving brutalized (and often, partially-eaten) bodies in their wake. (Clearly, this is a situation no more tenable than the first, for anyone who wishes to avoid mass hysteria--not to mention, all that blood and gore.)


But what to do, and how to go about it? With the aid of an investigator from the Yard--and with his own, handpicked assistant (none other than the flamboyant and radical poet, Algernon Swinburne)--Sir Richard proceeds to scour every seamy, squalid, teeming inch of London, following up on clues and tracking down leads.


[A bit more about that... I suspect most of us have a general sort of feeling wherein we “know” that we wouldn’t want to live in Victorian London... but through his detailed and (brutally) vivid descriptions of the lives of the myriad “have-nots” (in other words, the miserable majority of the city’s residents), Hodder effectively blugeons the last trace of romantic folderol onto which, oh-so-foolishly, we may have been holding. Gut-wrenching to read? Without a doubt. Intensely moving? Absolutely.]


Meanwhile, Sir Richard’s new destiny--not to mention Queen Victoria’s and [King] Albert’s changed circumstances--aren’t the only things to have been so altered... no, far from it. For this, I should tell you, also happens to be a full-on Steampunkish fantasy world, replete with incredible inventions and amazing contraptions. Rotochairs and steam-powered velocipedes, an ingenious pneumatic rail system, and genetically-mutated animals (think monster horses, for example) serve as transportation, alongside the more traditional horse-drawn conveyances. Communication among the more elite occurs not only by standard postal methods, but letters can now be delivered via speedy hounds (who are born knowing all of London’s addresses), and verbal messages may be sent via special messenger parrots (who... well, let’s just say aren’t entirely polite in their form of delivery). It is, indeed, a very different sort of world--and some of the auxiliary cast--including Charles Darwin, civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Florence Nightingale--appear in surprisingly-different roles, as well.


[Time for another aside... There were, as many people probably recall, a number of popular movements at the time. The Libertines (comprised of both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their considerably-more-radical brethren, the “Rakes”), for instance, believed that life should be free of the moral restraints typically placed upon it by man, and instead should be concerned with the pursuit of beauty and pleasure. (It was the particular forms such pleasure took which differentiated the two branches.) There were also the Darwinists, who supported Charles Darwin’s (mostly-unpopular) theories of evolution. To those movements, we will add the Technologists, including the Engineers (those who conceive the contraptions in this alternate, Steampunk world) and the Eugenicists (those who work with genetics and have created, among them, the mega-dray horses and trained parakeets and dogs described above). As with the Libertines, these two branches tend to be somewhat at odds with one another. Hodder cleverly interweaves all these different factions into the story, and it’s utterly fascinating.]


Still, after some truly grueling investigative work (including both help and hindrance from members of the above, various movements, as well as quite a lot of help from some wonderfully-unexpected quarters), Sir Richard and his team succeed in figuring out the nearly-unimaginable truth behind everything that’s been happening.


And what of the time travel I mentioned earlier? (No, I didn’t forget about it.) It’s sort of the beginning and the end of everything, actually... as someone makes a seemingly-innocent choice which sets off a whole chain of events... and someone else makes a rather-less-innocent choice to seal the deal. Re-dos, it seems, come with a very steep price, indeed.


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With its wildly-fantastical story, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack almost defies categorization. Part historical novel (since we learn much of the real history, too), part sci-fi (with its Steampunk and time travel bents), part fantasy (which is surely what we hope werewolves are), as well as pure mystery/suspense (Sir Richard is kind of a pre-Sherlock Holmes-meets-Victorian-James-Bond chap, with the delightfully-quirky and deviant Swinburne serving as his Dr. Watson), it might--at a glance--seem too much of a good thing (or things). Trust me, it’s not.


Is this a “perfect” book? Well, perhaps not quite. There were occasional patches which dragged a bit. (To be fair, though, that’s nearly always the case with the first book which sets up a series, and that’s what this is.) But, for the sheer amount of research Hodder undertook--the results of which he then seamlessly blended into a fabulously-creative story--and the logical manner in which most of his characters acted and the events played out, this book is certainly a rare wonder. Without question, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the most fascinating, absorbing, intelligent, and all-out entertaining books I’ve ever read.


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies!

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