Steampunk! Strap on your goggles, grab your ferret and fill up your zeppelin with hydrogen, because it’s time to read The Aylesford Skull, the latest of James P. Blaylock’s novels featuring his popular protagonist Langdon St. Ives.
St. Ives is described on the jacket as “brilliant but eccentric,” though in practice he comes off as Sherlock Holmes without the flaws: his brilliance is the same MacGyver-type encyclopedic knowledge of whatever’s needed in the current situation. We don’t see too much of his “eccentricity,” aside from his taste for ADVENTURE! and a fondness for gadgetry. All in all, he’s a bland protagonist who’s good for moving the plot forward but isn’t too terribly interesting otherwise.
His archnemesis, the infamous Doctor Ignatio Narbondo, suffers from the same problem. His name is the most interesting thing about him, though to be fair it is an excellent name. Dr. Narbondo’s modus operandi is the same throughout the book: bribe someone, then betray and kill them. Apparently none of London’s criminal underground have heard about the Dr. Narbondo Retirement Package, though, because this trick keeps working over and over again. Come to think of it, how would they have heard of it? It’s not like Narbondo has any ex-employees. A job for Narbondo is a job for life.
The book suffers from these shallow characterizations, which is a shame because the plot is rip-roaring. Within the first fifty pages we have a pirate attack, an attempted poisoning, a grave robbing, a murder, a bombing, a sewer chase, and the appearance of a ghost. Yes, a ghost. Though “steampunk” is usually considered a subgenre of science fiction, Blaylock weaves several supernatural elements into his plot, chiefly the titular skull. It adds an interesting wrinkle to his alternate England, but does make St. Ives look a bit silly by the end. He keeps insisting on “rational explanations” for these supernatural events after he’s encountered multiple ghosts and enlisted the aid of a psychic.
The book keeps up the pace throughout, building up to an intense, exciting climax followed by an abrupt and disappointing cop-out of an ending. Barely-a-spoiler alert: Narbondo is undone by his own villainy. I know! My shocked gasp sent my monocle flying across the room.
In general, it’s impossible to spoil this book because it does nothing you haven’t seen before a thousand times. The minute St. Ives climbs into his rickety airship you know that thing’s going to crash into something. Every time Narbondo walks into a room you know somebody’s getting killed within three pages. That said, it does do old stuff well. The pacing is breakneck, and though the book’s a little longer than the plot requires, it’s a fun, lightweight read.
The Aylesford Skull won’t surprise you, but if you’re a fan of this type of genre fiction you’re not looking to be surprised. You’re looking to read about a man firing incendiary bullets at a ghost made of coal dust to turn it into a walking bomb. And friend, you will not be disappointed.
Verdict: Get it from the library