Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.
Everyone likes to find a twenty in their wallet they forgot they had. Nestled between some wrinkly old receipts, its discovery puts a smile on your face and you find yourself saying “Hello, where have you been all this time?”
I found the final three-quarters of Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon a little like that, for reasons I’ll blather about shortly.
Welcome to the by-now utterly bizarre universe occupied, amongst others, by Sir Richard Burton, famous explorer and agent for King Albert (see, bizarre – I told you), and his assistant, the poet Algernon Swinburne. Theirs is a time knocked wildly off-course by the accidental interference of one Spring-Heeled Jack, whose inadvertent influence has given science and technology a premature shot in the arm, leading to bizarre insect-based conveyances (each hollowed out and steam-driven) and eugenically-altered plant life. So, yeah, like I said… mondo bizarro.
It should be said at this point that you really ought to come to Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon having already read The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. While Hodder gives the reader a fair amount of backstory, had I have come to this book cold I’d have perhaps put it down three chapters in, wondering what in blue blazes was going on, and declaring the whole thing a little too wilfully outré.
A significant reason for this, as I alluded to earlier, is because the universe in which these stories take place has, by book three, deviated so far from historical norms as to make it almost alien. The creative spurts of the eugenicists, for example, has bridged the gap to create not only animal men, but plant men too. Weaponised vegetation? Check. Acid-spitting plant-life with a thirst for blood? You betcha. In the first book, Spring-Heeled Jack suffers severe culture shock upon landing so far back in the past, which, I suspect, is a sensation not entirely dissimilar to diving into this series three books in.
The most troubling aspect I’d have had, however, would have been the structure of the book. Here you have two Burtons: one preparing to venture to the Mountains of the Moon, to not only retrieve a dirty great diamond but also to once and for all ascertain the source of the Nile; and also a second amnesiac Burton flung forward in time to an alternate World War I, witnessing first-hand the terrible world that has spun off from the actions of both Spring-Heeled Jack and he himself.
In short, I suspect it’d make a hell of a lot more sense if you were to read the first two books, so off you toddle.
For those of you still here, let me say that Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is another great read from Hodder, who, I’m guessing, three books in, is having a whale of a time conjuring up yet more complicated oddness for his alternative universe, when most lesser writers would have jumped off a bridge, declaring to have written themselves into a corner.
Not only has Hodder an imagination seemingly only measurable in light years, but he has a depth of knowledge for the Victorian era to match it. While his universe has spun off in many bizarre ways following the accidental assassination of Queen Victoria, it still recognisably parallels real-life events and the people of the age. But then, in Expedition, he pulls an ace from his sleeve.
We are shown, in the previous books, Burton’s recollections of his time spent in Africa, and how he incorporates the things he learned there into his day-to-day duties as the King’s agent. These references help cement the man as a dyed-in-the-wool explorer. Around a quarter of the way into Expedition, Burton and company embark on their journey for the final as-yet undiscovered black diamond, and here Hodder suddenly reveals himself to be just as good at writing a sprawling (and, crucially, well-researched and expertly-executed) desert adventure. After 2 1/4 somewhat barmy books set in foggy old Blighty I found myself reading Expedition thinking “Hello! Where’s all this come from? This is great!” It was like finding a whole new book, if not that crisp twenty from earlier.
Expeditions is not a book without its issues, however. Like Spring-Heeled Jack before it, the reader is asked to let slide some pretty eye-watering coincidences from beginning to end. For example, the way in which Burton’s party for the expedition is assembled is somewhat contrived (i.e. nearly all the surviving characters from the previous book are somehow shoehorned into the start of the expedition, including one that instantly had my eyes rolling – you’ll know who when you get there). An old returning character is reintroduced to the story in a fashion that had me saying to myself “Of all the oases in all the deserts in all of Africa she walks into mine”. Finally, the author’s habit of dropping in real-life historical figures into the story continues unabated. Some work, such as Sidi Bombay, while others set my eyes rolling again.
Finally, there were a few too many typos than one would expect from a retail book. There are thankfully not as many as there were in Spring-Heeled Jack, but enough that had me starting to watch out for them, taking me out of the story a little.
As for the ending… well, let’s just say I can’t wait to read #4, if only to see how on earth Hodder manages to continue the story. The Goodreads blurb hints #4 to be the start of a new series, which sounds ominous. I’ll reserve judgement, however, until I get my eager peepers on the thing.
Rating: In summary this, like Clockwork Man before it, is a solid 4/5 from me. Heartily recommended, old thing.
And finally… I’ll post a few reviews here while I plough through the final draft of The Floors. I’ll have a status update and more news on that whole thing shortly. When I’m not slaving over a hot keyboard, ploughing through a book, or (heaven forbid) at work, you’ll often find me haunting Goodreads. Do mosey on round to my place, why doncha: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6543771.Lucian_Poll