To be completely honest, I wanted to read this book from the moment I laid eyes on the cover. Once I read the cover blurb, I was sold. The book is even more gorgeous in person. Pyr really did a great job with the packaging.
But lest I be accused of solely judging a book by its cover, in my case, the contents lived up to the packaging. Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is at once Victorian Steampunk, Pulp Mystery, Alternate History and Science Fiction that is complexly plotted and extremely entertaining.
The story begins in Victorian England circa 1861 and sets the scene with the palpable grime and poverty one would expect from the era and infuses it with a mix of steampunk inventions, courtesy of the Technologists. In addition, the Eugenicists have altered animals to perform specific tasks. My favorite of these were the messenger parakeets who deliver and recite verbal messages interspersed with swearing.
The story is framed partially by the political factions of the aforementioned Technologists, who want to advance society through technological means and the Libertines who wish to stave off such advancement by protesting through the arts as they view this type of progress as detrimental to the core of society. Then there are the Rakes who have taken the counter-culture views of the Libertines to the extreme and wish to be completely liberated from any sort of morality, social code or limitation and are influenced in part by the idea of the seemingly unconstrained legendary figure of Spring Heeled Jack.
The story begins with the protagonist, Sir Richard Francis Burton, ready to verbally spar at a public engagement with his rival and former colleague, John Speke. Shortly before Burton is to take the stage, he is informed of Speke's attempted suicide, for which Burton is the prime suspect. But once Speke is kidnapped from his apparent deathbed, Burton is drawn into the investigation and is awarded a commission from the Prime Minister on behalf of monarchy as a special agent to the crown.
As mentioned earlier, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is part alternate history with the likes of Charles Darwin, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Oscar Wilde and Florence Nightengale making appearances as characters that are plausible in their new guises if you turn the lens of life a click to the left or right. Given the alternate path, their responses to life as it is presented are not unbelievable. The author also uses the aspect of time travel, a plot device that people seem to be extremely opinionated about. I didn't have a problem with this and I like how he used the trope to not only illustrate character, but also as a window to varying perspective on certain key events.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is richly detailed, complex and exciting. The turns the story take not expected. The choices that the characters make are not necessarily what you want to happen, the right thing to do or neat and tidy. I like this. I also think that some of the hero's decisions will come back to haunt him at some point in the future.
Burton & Swinburne and the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was an excellent book and I eagerly await the sequel: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man due in March, 2011.
Mark Hodder's blog: http://markhodder.posterous.
Coming Soon: Exploring the Gaslamp subgenre and a review of The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook.