Steampunk Summer: THIS is Alternate History; A Book Review

I dabbled in creating an alternate 1880's for Steampunk Carnival.  Electric lights aren't on the way yet. Neither is the telephone. And someone assassinates a public figure who in real life lived another 21 years and passed away 900 miles from where he meets his end in my book.  But much of the book is historically accurate down to clothing, accessories, and certain phrases of speech.

This is certainly not the case for The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder, which I've been devouring this summer.  His characters don't just live in an alternate world full of historical figures, some recognizable and some unfamiliar.  The main character, Sir Richard Francis Burton, becomes increasingly aware that two timelines exist.  In one, the real one, he marries his girlfriend Isabel, accepts a post abroad, and continues his writing and translating work.  However, as Burton investigates a string of attacks on teenaged girls by a bizarrely costumed phantom, he diverges from history into a wild, fantastic adventure.

Click to learn more about Mark Hodder's steampunk epic.

It's incredibly interesting to read this book as an American since it's deeply steeped in British history.  I get to enjoy the characters strictly by the information given to me, that Burton's meant to settle down with Isabel (relatively speaking - he is an explorer with numerous real-life adventures mentioned on his Wikipedia page).  But certain names - and futures - are wider known.  The young paper delivery boy who turns out to be Oscar Wilde.  Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution turn up. Queen Victoria, who actually survived numerous assassination attempts, succumbs to one early in the book, the reader's first clue that alternate history is definitely on the table.

But what of the other half of the characters Burton & Swinburne mentioned on the cover as being the major players in this story?  Algernon Charles Swinburne quickly emerged as my favorite character.  With red hair aflame on his head, this skinny young poet moves excitably and spontaneously through a life of alcohol and whimsy.  His libertine sensibilities, especially his tendency to follow in the pain-as-pleasure footsteps of the infamous Marquis de Sade lead to some of the most uproarious moments in the book.  (Trying to punish a masochist with a physical beating just isn't going to work!)  You can read about the real poet Swinburne here.  (The Wiki pages are worth checking out for the pictures alone, each man exactly as described in the book.)

There are so many beautiful things about The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack.  You don't have to know anything about any of these people to enjoy it.  Mark Hodder sets up everything you need to know and integrates it seamlessly into the storytelling.  Even the elusive villain, Spring Heeled Jack, is a long-known urban legend in the UK, and Mark Hodder makes the myth his own with this book. Every scene, character, and steam-driven contraption is described in creative but believable detail.  Each chapter opens with a quote from a character, figure, advertisement, or propaganda literature, adding even more depth to an already full-bodied world.  There's no "just getting your feet wet" with this story - it's all in or not at all.  And if you like it, the adventures continue as the series goes on.

The ending wraps up nicely with plenty of room to move forward into the sequels. If you're looking for steampunk in the form of a rollicking, action-packed adventure peopled by mad scientists and roguish personalities, look no further.

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