The Aylesford Skull, by James P. Blaylock: It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives.
When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit... (synopsis from Goodreads).
James P. Blaylock, one of steampunk’s founding fathers... winner of a Philip K. Dick Award and two World Fantasy Awards... his first full-length steampunk book in twenty years... another in the famous Langdon St. Ives series, pitting hero-inventor-explorer against his evil arch-nemesis Dr. Narbondo. When Titan Books asked if I might like to review this book, I may have fallen off my chair.
First off, is it necessary to have read the other Langdon St. Ives books to enjoy The Aylesford Skull? No, absolutely not. The story stands alone very well, and the plot and great characterisation convey the history between St. Ives and Narbondo perfectly, as well as St. Ives’ relationship with other characters, too. And readers who are familiar with St. Ives are also sure to find plenty to enjoy.
As you might expect with a steampunk story, The Aylesford Skull has a really good sense of setting. London, in particular, feels very real, from its respectable establishments to its grimy and dangerous back alleys, and the author uses various locations in spectacular ways throughout the plot. It’s also not as overtly steampunky as you might expect. The place isn’t packed with cogs and goggles and clockwork and strange puffing machines, but instead blends the fantastic with the real in more subtle ways. Things like the skull lamps, which to me instantly conjure up that Victorian obsession with science and the macabre, and the odd way in which the rational and irrational often became blurred. It feels like something that really could have existed. If steampunk is often a genre packed with things, the things in this novel always feel realistic and serve the plot.
The one exception is the airship, which felt as though it had been shoehorned into the story in order to add this vital steampunk touch. Sure, everyone loves a blimp, but I did think it was misplaced here. There were times when Langdon St. Ives genuinely seemed more interested in his invention than saving his son, and I did not understand why he felt the need to fly it to London while his friends took a perfectly serviceable train and still arrived there first.
This was a small hiccup in otherwise brilliant character writing. I loved St. Ives and his friends, particularly how each ‘sidekick’ to the hero was given specific traits and tasks. Everyone got a chance to shine, and St. Ives by no means took on all the most glorious adventures. In fact, if there was a real hero in the book, for me it was Finn. This was refreshing, as often the side characters only seem to be hanging around to make the hero look good. Either that, or the hero gets some foolish notion that to be a true hero he or she must do things alone. Not St. Ives... he goes straight to his friends for help, and that’s a character I can really support.
The villain Dr. Narbondo (great name), and the plot in general, were not quite as strong. I wasn’t sure about Narbondo; he was perhaps a little too one-sided – Evil with a capital E – a traditional black-clothed villain who kidnapped and killed children, wanted to open a path to the land of the dead, and even had a hunchback. However, this did add a sense of melodrama to the story, which actually complemented the Victorian setting very well. Everything about Narbondo and the plot was a little larger than life, and since this feeling ran throughout the whole book, it gave it a fun – if somewhat clichéd – atmosphere.
In terms of the plot, there’s kidnapping, chases, fights, more chasing, more fights, creeping through London’s seedier streets, infernal devices, murder, treason, daring rescues, more chases, even bigger fights! There’s certainly no lack of excitement, and as soon as St. Ives (rather inexplicably) gets into that airship, you just know it’s going to be one heck of a showdown (and it is). It’s entertaining stuff, but – slightly disappointingly – it never moves beyond ‘fun’ into something a bit more subtle or really breathtaking. And because of that, parts of it felt a little flat to me. For a light-hearted, exuberant and fun read, however, this book does the trick.
Thank you to Titan Books for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
This giveaway is now closed. Congrats to Katrina Day-Reilly, who won a copy of The Aylesford Skull!