Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Posted by 7th September 2010

It's time once again to feature a book for those interested in steampunk! No giveaway contest this time, unfortunately. I wish there was, because this book is terrific! Many thanks to Pyr for giving me the chance to read an advance copy.

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Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

by Mark Hodder

Beyond the gears and the goggles, most people interested in steampunk (or neoVictorianism, or any of a dozen similar labels) will say that what fascinates them about the Victorian era is the sense of unbridled possibility. Explorers, inventors, writers and architects alike were dreaming of new places, new machines, and new ways of living. All this was taking place amidst cities full of poor and middle-class workers who had no hope of upgrading their stations in life. It's the conflict between dirt and aether, exploration and exploitation, that makes the world of the Victorians intriguing.

In the middle of this place and time — London, 1861, to be exact — Mark Hodder places explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne as the protagonists of a wonderful tale. It begins as one would expect a normal story involving Burton to begin, with him planning to debate John Speke at the Royal Geographical Society…but then there is violence and chaos, and Burton takes the atmospheric railway home and receives a message by greyhound which…

Wait, what?

In The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Hodder has combined what never happened with what did take place, to wonderful effect. Isambard Kingdom Brunel's atmospheric railway has sprung to life, as have political groups of Eugenicists, Libertines, Rakes and Engineers. Lord Palmerston (still alive? Yes!) asks Burton to help his country in investigating peculiar occurrences involving a creature they call Spring Heeled Jack. Burton's detective work leads him into a twisted web of methodical plans and overreaching accidents going back to the assassination attempt on Queen Victoria in 1840. Along the way, readers encounter Oscar Wilde, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Paul Gustave Dore, and many more characters — some known to us through history, some lost to us, and some reimagined in ways never dreamed of before now.

In Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, Mark Hodder has created a world which manages to be fantastical and yet entirely believable. Burton and Swinburne make an excellent (if somewhat unpredictable) team, and the story is nonstop action. Anyone who knows their Victorian history will have a superb time finding the inside jokes and references to the characters, and even those who think Richard Burton is the actor who married Elizabeth Taylor can jump into this book and go along for the ride without needing any background information. The Fortean explorers in the reading audience can also come along and discover an entirely new (and, possibly, even plausible?) explanation for the phenomenon that came to be called Spring Heeled Jack. I hear that this is the beginning of a series; I certainly hope so, because it's a great read and I recommend it without hesitation.

As a bonus, Mark Hodder maintains a site devoted to detective Sexton Blake!

(Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is available from Pyr; you can purchase it through any of the many resources on the linked page, including Amazon.)

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