|THE AYLESFORD SKULL
James P. Blaylock (www.jamespblaylock.com)
Titan Books (titanbooks.com)
A girl is murdered in a cemetery in the quiet English town of Aylesford. She is found beside an open grave from which the skull appears to have been taken. The culprit is none other than Dr. Ignacio Narbondo; the Aylesford Skull – and more importantly, the modifications that have been made to it – are central to his latest plan. Kidnapping the four-year-old son of his old nemesis, Professor Langdon St. Ives, he flees to London and finds himself hunted not only by St. Ives, but by the headstrong young Finn Conrad, and old Mother Laswell, who has motives of her own. Narbondo and his associates are planning something big, and it’s up to Langdon St. Ives to stop him, and save his son in the process.
What at first glance may appear to be a clichéd and formulaic Victorian fable – the good guy and his nemesis fight a battle of wits with the world, or the Empire at least, at stake – gains much more depth the further we read. Langdon St. Ives may once have been an adventurer of some note, but he is now happy to have settled in rural England with his family. The upheaval caused by the return of Narbondo is unexpected and unwanted. When he learns the truth behind the missing skull, his scientific brain takes over and refuses to let him believe what he is being told, but he is not so close-minded that he is unable to accept the fact of magic when everything points to a supernatural explanation. Narbondo, the perfect foil for St. Ives’ character, is a larger-than-life, almost comical villain, the Joker to the Professor’s Batman. A man of few scruples, pure profit is his only motivation and there are no limits to what he will do to achieve his goals.
Around these two central characters, Blaylock has constructed a solid supporting cast, seeing the return of many characters from the earlier novels – Tubby Frobisher, Jack Owlesby, Bill Kraken and Hasbro, St. Ives’ factotum – as well as a few new faces – Finn Conrad, Mother Laswell and a certain young Scottish doctor by the name of Arthur Doyle. Blaylock admits to an enthusiasm for 18th and 19th Century literature, and his love of the form shines through here, both in the narrative structure of the novel, and the dialogue itself. This authentic writing style only adds to the experience, and makes the book’s steampunk and supernatural elements more palatable for the reader.
One of the strengths of the novel is the world that Blaylock has created around his characters. The action takes place in the summer of 1883 in a world much like our own, with some technological advances. This is a world of dirigible airships, steam-powered church organs and miniaturised-clockwork gadgets, but for the most part the steampunk is subtle, much less in-your-face than, say, Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels, or Sterling and Gibson’s The Difference Engine (both fine examples of the genre, don’t get me wrong). Blaylock weaves real-world history into the plot, setting the story against the politically charged background of 1880s London: a series of bombings blamed on Fenians and anarchists provide cover for Narbondo’s preparations. The result is a realistic and believable world not too far removed from our own.
James P. Blaylock is one of the fathers of the steampunk movement, and Langdon St. Ives is one of the genre’s most enduring characters, having first appeared in the early eighties. The Aylesford Skull is my first experience with both author and character: I have been lusting after the small press limited editions of the St. Ives novels for years, since they’ve been the easiest copies to find, despite the high price tag. Fortunately for me, and all those like me who have yet to meet the Professor and his companions, Titan Books are using the publication of this latest novel to re-issue at least some of the older novels, and hopefully in time we’ll see the complete collection as affordable paperbacks.
The Aylesford Skull is an old-fashioned adventure story with a sprinkling of technology and a hint of the supernatural. A fast-paced read, its audience is likely to be confined to fans of steampunk, or long-time readers of Blaylock, even though it deserves a much wider audience (it should appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones and all possible stops in between). With a strong cast of characters, an engaging storyline and a writing style that demands the reader’s attention, this novel shows that James P. Blaylock is worthy of the “Steampunk Legend” tag that adorns the book’s front cover. Despite references early in the story to previous adventures, this is an excellent place for the new reader to start. A wonderful addition to the genre, The Aylesford Skull has left this reader looking forward to more tales of Langdon St. Ives, both old and new.