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Book Review: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder

I will be transferring select posts from my old blog over to here. Please excuse the monotonous content while I’m doing this. Also excuse the broken links or images and my lack of a proper rating system. I am working on it.

This is another one of those books, like The Vesuvius Club and The End of Mr Y before it, that I chose because the cover art is beautiful. I refuse to allow you to judge me on my superficial methods, because they are both very good books. Ugly books are good too, but I’m just saying one doesn’t preclude the other. Anyway, it’s very steam-punky looking and may be the most steam-punky thing I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s also green and has gold-shiny bits. It had a lot going for it before I even picked it up, is what I’m saying. And then I read the blurb:

It is 1861 and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces.

Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. 

Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of his moral and ethical vacum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as “King’s Spy.” His first mission: to investigate the sexual assualts committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke

So much blurb! I like that. If it can say all of that without giving a great deal away then the book itself has to be dense enough for me to fall in, get lost and forget where I came from. That’s something I can get on board with. Fortunately I discovered that my first assumption was correct and that I really fucking love this book. For those of you suffering from Teal Deer Syndrome, you can stop there. If you care why I love it, please let’s continue.

Firstly there’s the Libertine Propaganda and other sorts of cultural ephemera like it that begin every chapter. The one in the very first chapter is:

Everything Life Places in Your Path is an Opportunity
No Matter How Difficult
No Matter How Upsetting
No Matter How Impenetrable
No Matter How You Judge It
An Opportunity

Which is a wonderful idea in itself, but when you are trapped on THE JOURNEY FROM HELL that lasts FOREVER and in which you get stuck in Paris for 7 hours (not as glamorous as it sounds, it was an airport and apparently the French don’t do fast food) and then in a hotel in Detroit overnight (even less glamorous than you could possibly imagine) and then on a bus for 23 hours, it’s an even more wonderful idea. And it was right, in its way. I got to read this beauty twice, pick up some awesome anecdotes and think too much about the opening chapters of books. It helped! Perhaps the trauma of the journey has made me forget that there are things I don’t like and focus on how wonderfully this world was built.

After that WONDEROUS bit of fake-propaganda, Sir Richard Francis Burton’s former best friend kills himself, which is the catalyst for the events in the rest of the book. While investigating the many mysteries that present themselves to him, Burton has run ins with the violent, deranged and anachronistic Spring Heeled Jack. This is explained and made clear(ish) in the last third of the book (time loops and I do not get on). The result being that I regret that the events described did not take place because I want to meet an orangutan with a human brain who is called Mr. Belljar. I never will, of course, and life goes on but some of the invention in this book is surreal, spectacular and a lot of it is very funny.

The things I did like are many and varied, mostly I like the bizarre inventions that make their way into every day life when ideas years before their time are introduced into Victorian/Albertian society. The result being that greyhounds and foul-mouthed parrots take messages to and from houses, the Prime Minister has had more work done than Jackie Stallone and there are giant swans that swoop through the streets of London with passengers in kites on their back. It is so incredibly steampunk that it makes my eyes sad that they can’t see these things for real. Sir Richard Francis Burton is a likeable protagonist but I find myself liking the people who help him along his journey a lot more than I like him. He’s a bit impersonal, but funny and flash and all of the important things you want from a dashing steampunk hero. His sidekick Swinburn is also wonderful and provides the comic relief along with knocking Burton down a peg or two when he wants things done his way, for good or bad. I was also put onto Swinburn’s beautiful poems. I’d never heard of him before this.

The things I didn’t like were mostly a general repeat of my occasional mantra “Victorian London omgWHY”, but that tapered off after a while because that’s precisely what this isn’t. It’s Victorian London on its head. It’s the introduction of chaos, of flux, of absolute uncertainty about whether the things you know should happen, the things that no good Victorian London should be without, will happen. I like that a lot.

The thing I really didn’t like was that a nurse who Burton encounters quite early in the story, Sister Sadhvi Raghavendra, is still presented as the bit of fluff, despite being a bad ass and saving lives, risking her own and all of that. She is of course immediately described the way Flashman would immediately categorise her: “dusky” with “almond eyes” and positively swoons when Burton says he’ll meet her again soon (he is still engaged at this point JUST SO YOU KNOW). Don’t get me wrong, I like that for the most part, people from the colonies aren’t treated as they truly were in this book. I mean if you’re going to write a do-over get rid of the parts that remind us how shit humans can be to one another, but there’s still an element of “ooh, exotic!” that rubs me the wrong way when she is so much more than just a pretty nurse. If you’re going to have people not be racist, lets not be sexist have men force their wives to leave the room when bad language is imminent. Just sayin. Back to the bad-assness of Sadhvi- without being too spoilery, she’s the bait at one point:

“She sat and waited, the tea at her side, a pistol in her hand.”

Know what that reminds me of? It reminds me of Budd in Kill Bill, waiting for The Bride with a shotgun in his lap. Ok, in all probability he was chewin’ baccy, not drinking tea and was not dressed as a flower seller. All that aside, Sadhvi? As bad ass as this guy:


He has a sword. And he works in a strip club. He's exactly like a Victorian Nurse.

And probably much better groomed. My point being, she does not have to be eye candy or a love interest to be a compelling/awesome character. PLEASE FOR TO BE STOPPING THIS KIND OF THINKING. Thx : )

The point I made when I reviewed Drood about dancing dead men about in strings still stands to some extent. I think I glossed over it for a few reasons:

  •  It was something that was not a bus journey of temporal or environmental extremes.
  • Hodder has a whole section at the back where he says “They really said this, but not this.”
  • It is not trying for any kind of historic accuracy. See Orangutan above. Drood seemed very real, despite the crazy supernatural goings on, and that made it weirder I think.

There are dozens of “real” (meaning people who once existed) people in this book, some of them saying things they really said and sometimes going off completely because this book is crazy times. I think the sheer volume of them, and the fact that I know they didn’t really meet and that this is all complete fiction that could never possibly have occured makes it a lot less creepy that they’re dead and this book is talking about them doing things they never did. I’m still not completely ok with it, but I may have attached myself to this book in rather an unhealthy way so my opinion may be completely warped. It probably doesn’t matter anyway : )

I love the Libertines and the Rakes. In my head I have to place myself in with the Libertines, they aren’t sinister or evil and I have to love the philosphy. The Rakes really scare me, but they’re so damned cool.

The poacher was just about to turn and take to his heels when an uncomfortable feeling in his neck stopped him. He looked down and his stubbled chin bumped into a wet red blade which projected from his throat. He coughed blood onto it and watched as it slid back into his neck and out of sight.
“My apologies,” said a soft voice from behind.
The poacher died and slid to the loamy earth.
The man who’d killed him sheathed his swordstick. Like all his fellow rakes, he was well-dressed, carried a bagged birdcage in one hand and a rucksack on his back. 
Little by little, the Rakes had occupied the shadows under the trees around the field and now there were hundreds of them.

They’re bastards, but that’s one of my favourite images of the book, hundreds of evil posh guys under trees killing poachers and being suave about it.

There are two cover reviews, both by the same man. I’m going to quote the longer of the two, because it unsurprisingly covers more ground.

This is an exhilarating romp through a witty combination of 19th century English fact and fiction. Mark Hodder definitely knows his stuff and has given us steam opera at its finest. In his first novel he shows himself to be as clever and inventive a writer as those who enliven his pages…A great increasingly complex, plot, fine characters and invention that never flags. It gets better and better, offering clues to some of Victorian London’s strangest mysteries. This is the best debut novel I have read in ages. -Michael Moorcock
Yeah… I don’t think there’s anything I disagree with. Apart from the use of the word “romp”, Mr Moorcock and I seem to think along the same lines when it comes to this particular book. Uhm. Yeah.

One of my absolute favourite elements is the seeming insanity of the inventions but just how much sense they seem to make to the people that use them. Spring Heeled Jack’s utter incredulity of the weirdness that surrounds him alongwith Burton’s matter of fact sense of wonder is brilliant. I mean, seen from a similar perspective half the stuff we do is just as strange and unethical, and I think it’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of invention. One of the main messages of the book is that just because you can it doesn’t mean you should. Talking orangutans being the obvious exception.

FULL MARKS, etc etc. I really will come up with a new rating system, you just watch.

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