Titan Books, out now
Gentleman adventurer and scientist Langdon St Ives tangles with his nemesis Dr Narbondo once more, as he tries to thwart a plot to bomb Victorian London…
Alongside Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock is one of the founding fathers of the literary genre that came to be known as Steampunk. In the late 1980s, this trio pioneered the field of alternate Victorian-set science fiction fantasy, little knowing that 20 years later it would give rise to an entire culture of movies, modding and cosplay.
Therein lies the problem (if that’s what it is) with The Aylesford Skull. This is Blaylock’s long-awaited return to a field that has moved on in the interim, and maybe left him behind. That’s not to say this isn’t an enjoyable ripping yarn, a Victorian adventure in the style of John Buchan, but that’s not what Steampunk is popularly seen as these days. There are precious few steam-driven gadgets here, and only one airship! That’ll never do in a world overflowing with wild Steampunk adventures packed with weird and wonderful anachronistic technology.
What Blaylock has delivered is a welcome back-to-basics tale, if a slightly overlong one. This is a story of fractured families—evil Dr. Narbondo kidnaps St Ives’ young son, while the he himself has to contend with his own family history—and their attempts to adapt to a rapidly approaching future. There are kidnappings, breathless chases and violent fistfights galore.
The one innovative gadget is Narbondo’s projection device, gruesomely built into a human skull. This seemingly offers the gullible a chance to commune with the “ghosts’ of their loved ones. Along for the ride with St Ives is one Arthur Doyle, a man who’d go on to create a well-known rational detective, and fall for a blindingly obvious spiritualist hoax.
The serial-style approach keeps the pages turning, but the jeopardy and escape scenes are a little repetitive, while the grand finale is perhaps a little rushed. Nonetheless, it is great to have a new adventure featuring Langdon St Ives and an example of a somewhat calmer approach to Steampunk from one of the genre’s true innovators.
Verdict: Not standard Steampunk as it is perceived today, but a rip-roaring ride of Victorian-set adventure fiction, 7/10
Brian J. Robb