Books from the Outer Rim: THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING HEELED JACK

The advance praise heaped upon Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is more than impressive.  It’s incredible.  One of my favorite fantasists, Michael Moorcock — a writer I think is better than Tolkien ever was (I know: HERESY) — called it “the best debut novel I have read in ages.”


Excerpts from other reviews:

glorious amount of detail
worldbuilding
wacky inventiveness
genre to a new level

what Steampunk is or should be 

Right.

Hyperboblurbs.

Why, then, is this novel so undeserving of the praise?


Simple.


Its superficial and unique beauty masks its utterly flawed nature.


In short, it’s pretty, especially to fans of the steampunk genre.  But it just doesn’t mean much in the end, and it takes forever to get there.



The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is the first in a series that takes the historical figures of Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne, places them in an alternate Victorian, steampunk Earth, and gives them the roles that would normally be filled by Holmes and Watson.  The strange affair they have to solve is based on the historical record of England’s Spring Heeled Jack in the mid 1800s.  Here, though, it’s all given a steam-driven, technological and temporal twist, which is fascinating to sf, fantasy and steampunk fans — and perhaps the concept is much more interesting than the finished product.


The narrative is overwritten, and is much more interested in Victorian-era language and atmosphere than in anything else.  Characterization, especially through the use of dialogue, is heavy-handed and amateurish.  This certainly reads like a first novel, and one that could have used considerable editing, especially in regard to the “glorious amount of detail.”  Elaine P. English, a literary agent, wrote recently in her blog about the awkward placement of history in fiction:

The main mistakes I see with this type of writing are stories with too many historical details inorganically inserted throughout the text, so concerned with sounding authentic that the overall tone is very distant and, frankly, rather boring to anyone who’s not a diehard history fan.  

Spring Heeled Jack is guilty of too much fictional history — of too much worldbuilding.  Ordinarily, this would be a good thing.  But here the worldbuilding and the atmospheric language — pseudo-Victorian verisimilitude — detract greatly from the story and the plotting.  It gets in the way of the action, muddying scenes like the proverbial London fog.


Hodder has come up with an intriguing concept, and one that I was eager to read.  I like some of his “wacky inventiveness” — the foul-mouthed parakeets, the character of the Beetle — but these are decent ideas that don’t propel the story — and too much of it simply bogs the story down.  There’s too much verisimilitude and too little of worth.


I need my stories with more . . . well, story.  This will most definitely appeal to ardent steampunkers, but if inventiveness is what all “Steampunk is or should be” then I don’t need any more of it.


It was a chore to read — and reading should be a pleasure, not work.

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