The cover of James P. Blaylock’s new novel, The Aylesford Skull: A Tale of Langdon St. Ives, proclaims Blaylock as a “Steampunk Legend” and sports an illustration of a sepia-toned steam-punky looking dude with a smoking skull in his hands. Based on the cover alone (and considering I have not read Blaylock’s previous work yet), I probably would never have considered reading this novel, primarily because using the term “Steampunk” as a marketing tool is, to me, ever so annoying. Yes, Blaylock is one of several author’s who is credited with creating the Steampunk genre in the eighties (the others being Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter). That’s all well and good, but in the day and age where shows like “Bar Rescue” come to my town and turn a punk rock tiki bar into a “Steampunk” bar by painting everything copper and pasting a few wooden cogs to the wall, you’ll understand why I, someone who appreciates the Steampunk aesthetic and literary movement, might be a tad turned off. So if you are like me, listen to what I am about to tell you. IGNORE THE COVER and read it anyway.
The Aylesford Skull is not Steampunk in the way that The Difference Engine or City of Lost Children are Steampunk. While it is set in Victorian England and makes use of re-imagined technology, like photo projection and hydrogen airships, these things are not so prominent as to be major focal points of the story. To the characters they are merely tools or curiosities. There’s no alternate history implying that steam power or analogue computing will rule the day. Professor Langdon St. Ives’ primary tools against his foe are his wits, reason and determination, and he uses the modern inventions of the time to accomplish his goals. In a way it’s very Sherlock Holmes.
As for our antagonist, Dr Ignacio Narbondo, he uses technology for nefarious ends, of course, in the manner of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Moriarty. Fiercely intelligent with unending ambition and a pathological desire to be master of all things. What makes this bad guy, and story, different, is the use of the supernatural. Narbondo intends on using his knowledge of technology and chemistry, as well as his unusual gadgets, to open a portal to the underworld. The Aylesford Skull is the fourth novel in Blaylock’s Narbondo series. I have not read any of the previous novels in the series, though I am inclined to now. Apparently Professor St. Ives and Dr. Narbondo have been arch-nemesis for quite some time.
So, in the summer of 1883, Professor Langdon St. Ives has returned to his home in Aylesford, fresh from solving a mystery in London, to spend some quality time with his wife and children. But Narbondo has also come to Aylesford, which we learn was his childhood home. He murders a woman, steals his brother’s skull from it’s grave, attempts to poison St. Ives’ family, and kidnaps St. Ives’ son, Eddie. St. Ives must now follow Narbondo to London in order to save his son, discover Narbondo’s plot and possibly save the city. While St. Ives doesn’t believe it is possible to open a portal to the underworld (as no educated gentleman would), the result of Narbondo’s actions could still be catastrophic.
To me this is a supernatural Victorian crime/mystery/thriller. But one of the things I like about it is that the supernatural element is never really confirmed. We never know if the universe that Blaylock has created really has magic, or if it’s just the insane musings of a madman who THINKS he can use magic. Narbondo fancies himself a necromancer, and whether or not magic is real, the trail of bodies he creates in his attempts at magic certainly is.
On top of the fantastical story, the character banter is also subtly funny and mildly philosophical. St. Ives and his companions are a strange lot. Part erudite gentlemen, part rough and tumble adventurers, they don’t really fit into any one category of person (Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones meets Captain Picard… sort of). So fortunately for them they have found each other. Some of their behavior defies reason and irked me a little bit. Like setting up camp and taking tea while on an urgent rescue mission. I kinda don’t believe it. But Blaylock makes it work. On the other hand there were some philosophical gems worked into the story such as “Belief that comes too easily is a shallow and often foolish thing. Stubborn disbelief is much the same.” Or this, “Human beings, he thought, could be a strangely confounded lot. Cats were typically more sensible…” Mr. Blaylock, I wholeheartedly agree.
I did take issue with the relative weakness of the female characters. St. Ives’ wife is clearly intelligent and capable and yet is left behind to look after the remaining child, relegating her to a mother/lover role until close to the end of the novel when she’s granted a small adventure of her own. Mother Laswell is a witchy, old-crone type character, that, while well written, is a bit stereotypical. However, given the setting of the story, the heavy reliance on male characters, in my opinion, is forgivable and didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story overall.
All in all I’d give this 4 Nerdskulls and definitely think you should add it to your “To Read” list when it comes out on January 25th.