Steampunk Minus the Cogs: The Aylesford Skull, by James P. Blaylock

Titan Books’ cover for James P. Blaylock’s newest novel, The Aylesford Skull, inscribes STEAMPUNK LEGEND below the author’s name. It’s true, Blaylock’s one of the original trio—the others being Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter—whose work in the eighties defined, or perhaps invented, steampunk as a literary subgenre. The Aylesford Skull marks his first novel-length return to Victorian England since 1992’s Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and it marks my own very first acquaintance with his work.

Accustomed as I am to hearing “steampunk” and thinking of Priest’s Boneshaker and Carriger’s Soulless, Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls and Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Blaylock’s languid pace and studied absence of over-the-top cogs-and-wheels and steam-powered machines comes as something of a culture shock. He’s taking it seriously! You’re not supposed to take it seriously!

(Why yes, I do have strange, and possibly unusual, expectations for steampunk.)

Professor (Professor of what, I don’t believe we learn) Langdon St. Ives, scientist and explorer, has been living the quiet life in Aylesford with his wife Alice and their young children, Edward and Cleo. The most pressing problem in his life is renovating the barn so as to fit his newest project inside—an airship. That is, until murder comes to Aylesford, in the person of Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, longtime nemesis of St. Ives and his friends. Aylesford was Narbondo’s childhood home, and he’s returned to collect the skull of his long-dead brother, worked by his stepfather into a necromantic relic, for nefarious purposes. And to kidnap St. Ives’ son.

Before long, St. Ives, St. Ives’ apprentice gardener Finn, and St. Ives’ neighbour the clairvoyant Mother Laswell (Narbondo’s mother) are on their separate ways to London, each individually determined to rescue young Edward and put an end to Narbondo’s life—or at least his plots, which are gradually revealed to have to do with blowing up parts of London and using necromancy and technologically altered skulls to open a doorway to the netherworld—this is not an antagonist lacking in ambition, even if it’s difficult to see how the random murderousness makes sense. Altercations in London rookeries and acrobatic espionage lead to escapes and recaptures—and more escapes and recaptures—and confrontations in smugglers’ hideaways on the lower Thames, murders and betrayals and airships being crashed into the top of cathedrals.

Blaylock seems to be drawing his inspiration, and his mode, from the late Victorian adventure novels from whose milieu Arthur Conan Doyle arose: Narbondo’s murderous scheming competence is reminiscent of a Moriarty with extra added necromancy and criminal insanity, as the Victorians would’ve said. It’s fitting, then, that Doyle himself gets more than a mere cameo appearance as part of the posse than St. Ives raises to go after Narbondo—even if it feels slightly self-indulgent.

The pace is for the most part measured, but at points during the four-hundred-some pages, it drags. While the characterisation is solid, the narrative maintains a certain amount of distance from the characters. An exception to the generally solid characterisation is that of Narbondo, who is evil merely for the sake of wickedness. I find it discomfiting that the single man with the foreign-sounding name—as an assumed name, “Ignacio Narbondo” is hardly bread-and-butter Anglo, however English his birth might be—is the embodiment of nefariousness and betrayal. I’m also disappointed that, of the three women with more than a bit-part to play, one is a sociopathic murderer, and the other two, in their own ways, play into Narbondo’s hands more thoroughly than the men around then. Or so it seems: perhaps I’m merely extra-sensitive.

The Aylesford Skull isn’t a book that hit my narrative kinks: it sailed right past most of them, wide by a mile. That said, its flaws are those of a well-written novel appealing to tastes at a right-angle to my own, and for that I can hardly condemn it. If leisurely steampunk novels punctuated with murder, necromancy, acts of daring, and the occasional explosion are your thing, this may well be the thing for you!

Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.


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