Books: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

In Brief: Steampunk meets historical fiction in Victorian London, with time travel paradox and some mysticism thrown in for good measure.  Author Mark Hodder hits the ground running.

Pros:  Fast-paced and fun for readers familiar with the history of the British Empire at its apex, the book quickly introduces its sci-fi conventions, stamps them in the plot and moves onwards.  And also – werewolves.

Cons:  Readers with no grounding in history may still enjoy much of this book, but won’t be in on some of the most creative turns with historical figures and famous events.  This book has more of a pulp feel, so some of the characters come off a little flat (or would if you didn’t have the historical versions of them to fill in space).

Review:  At the library, saw the cover, and read the back  copy (which was written in the style of a 19th century newspaper advertisement).  I immediately noticed that one of the main characters was none other than a fictionalized Sir Richard Francis Burton, famous explorer and Victorian writer and a person I’ve read about before.  OK, Mr. Mark Hodder – well played, I told myself.  I have to give this a look.

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack immediately plunges us into an alternate England – one in which familiar historical events have changed, not occurred, or happened out of sequence.  Beginning with Burton’s feud with fellow explorer, John Speke, over the location of the source of the Nile.  As history tells us, Speke shot himself (either on purpose or accidentally) as he and Burton were about to debate their specific expeditions.  But in this novel, Speke does not perish almost immediately but instead disappears.  And Burton has himself a mystery to solve.

We quickly note the other changes of this version of England.  The monorail or ‘sky-train’ system.  Smarty ‘eugenically-altered’ delivery dogs and message birds (that curse like sailors amidst delivering their messages).  Steam-powered personal gyro-copter chairs.  Quickly Burton finds himself assaulted by a strange being in metallic clothing with spring-stilts and uncanny lightning-like shrouding:  Spring Heeled Jack.  To Burton, he’s an apparition, a babbling mad-man who leaps impossibly high in the air and disappears.  To the discerning sci-fi reader, he’s a time-traveler caught in the throes of the space-time paradox who knows his time-suit is running low on juice.

Mark Hodder (in his debut novel, no less) barely pauses from there.  Not many pages later, Burton hears of werewolves in the poorest parts of London’s East Side .  Soon thereafter, King Albert enlists him as his agent to officially look into both the werewolves and Spring Heeled Jack.

That’s right – King Albert.  Victoria is not queen; she was assassinated nearly twenty year earlier, a pivotal point that seems to have initiated this divergent steampunk timeline.

Hodder plunges us into a world were famous historical figures are a little different, perhaps more sensational, where certain technology has leaped forward decades (if not centuries).  We learn of this world’s Libertine movement, an amalgamation of rakes, proto-Marxists, and others dedicated to the pursuit of the self and ‘natural man’.  On the other side, the Technologists, whose feats of engineering and imagination appear to be propelling the British Empire to primacy.

Burton’s sidekick, the poet Algernon Swinburne figures into the plot as well.  The author’s version is a debauched masochist who still manages to come off as brave and decent to others.  Not easy to pull off.  Swinburne and Burton follow the clues left by Spring Heeled Jack and his allies, and are soon onto a deeper more sinister plot.  It’s grotesque and sensational.  It’s also great fun.

I’m impressed by Hodder’s ability to handle all these sci-fi and historical elements and keep things moving.  However, one slight weakness of this method of storytelling is it doesn’t leave much room for advanced characterization, revelations, or growth.  These fictional versions of Burton and Swinburne are certainly changed by their adventures and what they learn.  But mostly they tell us how they’re changed (as opposed to showing us).

Hodder also handles the ideas and conventions of time travel well.  While there’s really nothing new here for the hardened sci-fi reader, he does make good use of the plot devices and avoids major problems.  And the chapters dealing with the origins and misfortunes of Spring Heeled Jack are quite enjoyable.

Bottom Line: If you’re interested in history and speculative tech, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is probably right up your alley.  I see that Mark Hodder has written two more Burton & Swinburne books, and I will certainly look forward to reading the next one.

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