Review – The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Note: This review first appeared on my Goodreads page.

Book series are the lifeblood of genre publishing, perhaps more so now than at any other point in publishing history. Take a moment the next time you’re in a bookshop to see just how much shelf space they occupy. (And, annoyingly, how many of those series are missing Book One!)

Book series are popular with readers as they allow them to re-enter a familiar world they previously found entertaining. The cynical among you may also argue book series are popular with authors, agents and publishers because they are a much easier sell than a standalone piece of work.

Of course, before getting to that stage, all concerned need to surmount that most tricky of obstacles: the first book of the series. That first book has to do a hell of a lot. It has to introduce the main and supporting characters and set up relationships between them all. It has to create an interesting universe in which to house future instalments. It has to nail down some rules for the characters to play by. And then, on top of all that, it has to tell its own mighty fine story in the hope of then luring readers back for more.

This takes us to The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, the first instalment of Mark Hodder’s Burton & Swinburne series, detailing the adventures of Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne in an alternative Industrial Revolution-era universe. I bought this along with its subsequent two books, and have refrained from writing a review until I had read all three.

It sounds mean, but I did this because I wanted to know whether subsequent books in the series would improve upon Spring-Heeled Jack. That’s not to say it’s a bad book – far from it – the book won the Philip K Dick award, after all – but had it been a standalone work then I’d have marked it down a little more.

The reasons mostly relate to that First Book Syndrome I was blathering about just now. There are parts of the story, particularly in the first 50 or so pages, where there was a little too much world-building going on. There were also pages of philosophical discussion between assorted characters that made me wonder what I’d let myself in for. Then, thankfully, the story began, and rather good it was too.

Queen Victoria is dead, assassinated very early into her reign, which, after some political jiggery-pokery, brings about the Albertian era. Years pass and King Albert’s subjects are blissfully unaware that history should not have unfurled in this way. Someone has interfered with the past and is desperate to put things right. The ramifications of their actions, however, help accelerate development in assorted scientific and technological disciplines, creating a bizarre London filled with steam-driven Penny Farthings, airborne chairs, parakeet messengers and eugenically-altered people. Peppered throughout this alternative history are attacks from and bizarre sightings of the titular Spring-Heeled Jack.

Amidst this oddness is Sir Richard Burton, explorer extraordinaire, reeling from the apparent attempted suicide of John Hanning Speke, a former friend turned bitter rival. Burton is soon set upon by a raving-mad Spring-Heeled Jack, whose insane rant reveals that history has been altered, and suggests a dull future had once lay ahead for Burton. When Burton is offered the role of the King’s agent he therefore quickly accepts (thus spinning history further off the rails). Assisted by the poet Algernon Swinburne, and assorted other real-life historical figures, they uncover a wonderfully complicated plot of twisted ideologies, bad science and time travel.

(“Just how complicated a plot?” you may ask. Well, reading Spring-Heeled Jack brought to mind an old Mad magazine skit of Back to the Future 2, where a famous US sports pundit would frequently break into the story to explain the temporal tomfoolery that was going on, using a chart covered with esoteric lines and arrows. Hodder’s chart in plotting this story, I reckon, would have been visible from space.)

Now, while I say the story is good, in order to enjoy it fully you are going to have to suspend disbelief more than a couple of times, and flat-out ignore some annoyances that litter the book.

First, even though Sir Richard Burton is a well-connected man, there is a large dollop of happenstance in Spring-Heeled Jack. The cynic in me was sometimes left debating the next historical figure to be shoehorned into the story.

Second, there were times, particularly towards the end, when the story got too silly for me. When the cabal of bad guys was fully revealed it instantly smacked of a Venture Bros episode. (Mind you, if Hodder had planted the line “They hit me with a pantechnicon!” in there, that would have been an instant 5 stars from this reviewer.)

Third, though this is a minor niggle, there is evidence in this book that Hodder will need a new keyboard to replace the Shift and 1 keys, for there are exclamation marks ruddy well everywhere. I often hit sentences and dialogue that didn’t seem to warrant them. They also appear in the narrative voice, which may irk some readers.

Finally, and this perhaps bothered me the most, the copy I had was littered with formatting errors and typos. The odd one I could handle, but there were masses of them in this book. I’d read a line of dialogue only to find it was actually two lines caused by a missing line break. This made for added confusion when the return dialogue began on the next line, but incorrectly indented. I also couldn’t help but notice all the way through that “Spring-Heeled Jack” was hyphenated in the page headers, but not at all within the story itself. I found these lapses surprising and disappointing given the quality of Snowbooks’ previous output.

That said, there is a huge amount of stuff in this book to admire. While Hodder has created an alternative history for his series, it is still a history that recognisably parallels actual events. How he has managed to squeeze all of this into a coherent (albeit bonkers) plot speaks of a deep knowledge of the era as well as staggering inventiveness and imagination.

Overall, had this have been a standalone book, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack would have been a 3/5 from me. However, the quality of the sequels help edge this up a notch. If you thought the plot in this book was mad, just see where Hodder takes his alternative history next!

Rating: 3.5, rounded up to 4/5. Cordially 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

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