One place you’re most likely to find me is: nowhere. I don’t get out much; I mainly escape through the pages of the latest book I’m reading. After many school years over-analysing lines of text, I had forgotten how to simply read a book. It wasn’t until Christmas that a tall stack of gifted novels triggered me into making a first determined effort to break the back bone of my reading anxiety. As it turns out, I enjoyed the first book I read so much, that I decided to write a book review on it here:
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack’ (2010) is a 479-page Victorian Steampunk novel, written by Mark Hodder. I was initially apprehensive, because if reading the dystopian passages of Mortal Engines was anything to go by, then I would find this one mighty tough read. However, this exciting novel is set in an alternative ‘Albertian’ London and makes use of an array of 19th-Century historical figures. Sir Richard Francis Burton is the multi-disciplined and charismatic protagonist who investigates two parallel subplots. The more interesting of which is his terrifying encounter with the alien figure of Spring-Heeled Jack. I enjoyed Hodder’s use of a third-person narrative, told from the perspective of Burton, as I ‘shared’ the sensation of being plunged into a murky world of terror and mystery. I also liked the fact that I had stumbled across a story about the lesser-known urban myth of Spring-Heeled Jack. There are too many stories which revolve around Jack the Ripper and if you haven’t heard of Spring-Heeled Jack before, then just a mention opens you up to a new avenue of education into English folklore.
Credit: The British Library.
At no point is the plot tiresome and this is diverted with the aid of Burton’s youthful and naive companion Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne not only provides opportunity for exciting and daring plot twists but instant likeability and flippant humour along the way. I was able to sit down with this book and become engrossed in its pages 2-3 hours at a time.
Another thing I appreciate, and respect is Hodder’s extensive knowledge of the period and this is clear with his rich detailing of factual events that occurred at the time. Not only does this offer a real flavour for 19th-Century history, but the material is beautifully entwined with fictional creativity. If you have an appreciation for the Victorian period, this book will be well within your comfort zone – both engaging and rewarding with a few delightful guest appearances sprinkled throughout. On the fictional side, the narrative is set against the backdrop of an alternative London, where the Romantic-like factions of society known as the Rakes and hard-line Libertines are waring with the Eugenicists and Technologists, who form the backbone of the empire. There are velocipedes and swearing messenger parakeets, a vicious albino panther man, and wolves which kidnap chimney sweeps in the smog. And Burton finds himself plunged into this insane reality when he is called upon by Prime Minister Lord Palmerstone as the King’s secret agent, to investigate the strange disappearances. For a considerable chunk of the novel I wondered about the significance – if any – of Hodder choosing to write a story in ‘Albertian’ Britain. As it turns out, there was a lot of significance and this concept was a result of a key part of the plot.
Just when I thought things were being tied together, Hodder flipped the narrative on its head and the reader gains a completely new version of the story from a different perspective. Yes, the novel has elements of Victorian Steampunk in it, but I’d argue that this doesn’t define it. The combination of a 19th-Century setting, the mystery, grime and Hodder’s detailed navigation around London are what largely set the mood, and this isn’t the typically ‘dry’ result you get from a lot of books set in similar periods, like Terry Pratchett’s ‘Dodger’ (sorry Terry).
If I had to find something potentially negative in Hodder’s writing, it would be his characterisation of female figures. And characters like Isabell Arundell and the famous Florence Nightingale have very limited dialogue to none whatsoever, which makes them come across as quite two-dimensional. However, in a period which was effectively a man’s world, I guess this can be accepted. Another questionable aspect were instances of assault, but again in the greater context of the storyline, it made sense in its own twisted way. Hodder’s writing was plausible enough to even make me feel pity for person responsible for the acts. Whilst I did get the impression that the story became convoluted and it dissolved into dramatic fantasy near the end, the overall experience of the novel was so enjoyable that the next book in the Burton and Swinburne series is on my eventual wish list. If you’re into mystery slightly more than crime, as well a clash between science-fiction and history, then I’d recommend.
Published in 2010 by Snowbooks Ltd, Reprinted 2017
Written by Mark Hodder and Illustrated by Kate Hiscock