I have to give Mark Hodder props. He isn't afraid to go for broke. Halfway through The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, there's a reveal so gloriously over the top that you really have no choice but to roll with it. Were it not for the combination of creative fearlessness and high entertainment value Hodder brings to bear all throughout this alternate-history steampunk extravaganza, you might be justified in wondering if he's simply as mad as much of his cast. Perhaps he is. I'd hate to second guess the fellow.
This is a book that will prompt the Anglophile in you to start saying words like "fellow". But I can offer up a few Americanisms too, in case you're someone who thinks Anglophilic Americans are a bunch of poseurs. Where George Mann's similar The Affinity Bridge made it reasonably well to first base, Hodder's gaslight-sleuthing debut scores at least a triple. A fly ball or two keeps Hodder from hitting a home run, but he's certainly on his way to the big leagues. There. If a painfully extended and completely ridiculous baseball metaphor isn't sufficiently American, I don't know what is. Of course, it's a metaphor that's not even remotely steampunk either. Perhaps I should knock it off and start talking like a normal human being, lest you leave here completely bewildered as to whether I actually liked the book.
Short version: I did. Long version: While steampunk is starting to be in danger of the level of overexposure that has made the paranormal glut simply unbearable to readers who sadly recall those halcyon days when their bookshop's science fiction racks actually had science fiction in them, at least we're getting more imaginative stories out of it. Mark Hodder is a talented talespinner and deft craftsman who builds his bizarro-Victorian world with boundless creative zeal. Occasionally that zeal gets a bit too much for the proceedings. But readers who enjoy, say, the manic energy of some of the more recent Doctor Who series are likely to consider that a plus. There's a glorious amount of detail here, not only in Hodder's worldbuilding, but in the care with which he's nurtured his plot. Stories that deal with time travel and its paradoxes require such care, and I admire the way Hodder deliberately set himself a difficult challenge and rose to it.
Consider everything Hodder makes sure he has covered. Not only has he found clever ways to reimagine the course of the 19th century, he actually establishes within his plot a convincing explanation for why this transformed past has steampunk technology in it at all. It's an intelligent detail to remember to cover, considering that many Victorian steampunk stories simply expect you to accept the tech a priori, because the writer likes to think his Victorians are just that awesome. Perhaps not all of the spiffy inventions Hodder presents are entirely believeable — such as the rotorchairs, little one-man helicopters that, while indisputably kickass, don't seem like they'd really work under steam power — but most are magnificent. And Hodder adds even more depth to his world by introducing a caste system into his society, in which Technologists forever seek bigger and better machines, Eugenicists develop insanely modified animals for specialist labor, and the Libertines and Rakes indulge their whims in hedonistic defiance of all social propriety. Hodder's soot-enshrouded magical mystery London is so vivid and palpable that at times the level of reader immersion is perfectly Miévillian.
And it's the sort of story that a review cannot possibly spoil. (Though I will advise you to take care before reading Pyr's cover blurb, as it has a tagline that gives away a key point you're better off not knowing.) Even if I were to describe the aforementioned reveal, there's no way it would be the least bit comprehensible until you actually sit down and follow every meticulous step the story takes to get to that moment. Hodder avoids predictable formula with the ease of a born storyteller. All I can say is that our protagonist is Sir Richard Francis Burton, dispirited after his rivalry with his longtime fellow explorer John Speke ends in tragedy (on a slightly different timeline than the real events). Burton here seems far more like he might have been in real life, than I remember him from Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels. Seeking a fresh start, Burton accepts a commission from prime minister Lord Palmerston to serve as the King's special agent, to investigate reports of werewolf sightings in the East End. His improbable companion in these endeavors will be the diminutive, party-boy poet Algernon Swinburne, a wastrel with a not entirely healthy masochistic streak, who nonetheless seeks direction and a purpose in life to offset his ennui. Ennui being what made you emo in the 19th century.
The loup-garous have, for reasons unknown, been abducting little chimney sweeps in the area. But before his investigation even begins, Burton is assaulted on the street by a horrific apparition with glowing mad eyes, in a strange suit that crackles with electricity, and wearing crazy spring-loaded boots that enable him to leap tall buildings in a single bound. This can be none other than the legendary madman Spring-Heeled Jack — but that would be impossible, as everyone knows Jack is nothing but a bogeyman to frighten children.
Does everything have everything to do with everything else? Why, of course, but I'll leave you the pleasure of experiencing how Hodder pulls off this Rube Goldberg narrative. In the final analysis, I find myself docking a half-star for some shifts in tone that aren't as smooth as they should be. The story goes from suspenseful, to dramatic, to outrageous (wait till you really encounter the villains), to whimsical, to satirical, to genuinely disturbing (particularly involving Jack's actual crimes), sometimes with whiplash-inducing suddenness. A book that features both a talking orangutan and a possible serial rapist is perhaps asking a bit too much indulgence of its readers. But on balance, I'm sufficiently impressed with the energy and inventiveness steaming along here to assure you it's a trip worth taking.