Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Burton & Swinburne series

Mark Hodder

A fantastically detailed and imaginative steampunk world very much within the tradition of British authors of the scientifically weird and wonderful such as Michael Moorcock.

Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
It is 1861, and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces. Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as 'King's Spy.' His first mission: to investigate the sexual assaults committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke. Accompanied by the diminutive and pain-loving poet, Algernon Swinburne, Burton's investigations lead him back to one of the defining events of the age: the brutal assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840; and the terrifying possibility that the world he inhabits shouldn't exist at all. 

Quite frankly this novel turned out to be one of the best books it's been my pleasure to read in a very long time. For his debut novel Hodder takes that heaviest-weight of 19th century adventurers, Richard Burton, partners him with an obscure and largely unsung poet, Algernon Swinburne, and weaves them into a riveting romp through an irrevocably altered Victorian (now Albertian) period. The catalyst for this change and the unorthodox partnership is the mysterious Spring-Heeled Jack whose mythos has been seamlessly interwoven into the narrative.

Burton is a dynamo of energy and it's surprising that he has not been utilised more in fiction of this kind in the past. His real life adventures are audition enough to make his adoption of his role in the narrative utterly plausible. Swinburne's very obscurity for the reader (or at least this reader) allows him the opportunity to become anything Hodder desires of him.
The partnership are assigned a new role of secret investigators for the King in this brave new world of rampant technological and biological advances. Some of which are maybe a little too major for the sort of timelines hinted at but it all goes to serve the tale so I don't really care too much.

As a villain Jack offers much and the seamless way in which Hodder has woven the folktales surrounding this Victorian enigma into the story is an absolute joy. His presence augmented by the maniacal villainy of some other familiar historical faces whose fates, like Burton and Swinburne, have been irrevocably changed by this interloper.

As I said earlier, it's been a while since I enjoyed a book as much as this and that this is a debut novel is nothing short of astonishing. The recommendation on the front from Michael Moorcock (saying pretty much the same as I did in that last sentence) is very apt as it is he that is most brought to mind in Hodder's writing, the characters almost ooze a Moorcockian presence and solidity that enables them to utterly exist within the storyworld no matter how deranged. This is Hodder's baby though and he does have a voice that is very much his own and is both engaging and compulsive. He takes no shortcuts and never leaves the the reader to flounder in unnecessary world-building, wool gathering or naval gazing. The plot is tight, the characters well rounded and engaging and the setting is one I wish to visit again and again.

Burton & Swinburne in the Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
It is 1862, though not the 1862 it should be...
Time has been altered, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the king’s agent, is one of the few people who know that the world is now careening along a very different course from that which Destiny intended.
When a clockwork-powered man of brass is found abandoned in Trafalgar Square, Burton and his assistant, the wayward poet Algernon Swinburne, find themselves on the trail of the stolen Garnier Collection—black diamonds rumored to be fragments of the Lemurian Eye of Naga, a meteorite that fell to Earth in prehistoric times.
Can the king’s agent expose a plot that threatens to rip the British Empire apart, leading to an international conflict the like of which the world has never seen? And what part does the clockwork man have to play?

The first of these Burton & Swinburne books was one of my highlights of last year.  This one has set the bar terrifically high for this one.
Chronologically there's only a small gap between the two but mention is made of a few other cases i n the interim.  This story is based around the story of the Tichborne affair - a real life court case regarding a claim to the Tichborne fortune.  In this version however it is the Rakes (dandy anarchists) faction, under the sway of some ghostly woman, who are attempting to replace the missing heir as part of their wider plan.  Their claim is blatantly fraudulent yet for some reason people, including Swinburne, are falling for it hook line and sinker. It soon becomes evident that this is linked with the theft of some black diamonds that Burton was investigating earlier.

As the popularity of the monstrous Tichborne claimant spreads among the working classes of London things start to look decidedly violent and grim.

I really like the way Hodder easily juggles a large cast most of whom have some basis in real Victorian life.  Easily my favourite addition to the roster this time off is the philosopher Herbert ('Survival of the Fittest') Spencer.  I'm so glad he's staying on board for the duration as he was a delight as a character.

Gripping and enthralling throughout with an ending both satisfying and intriguing. I am so very glad that there was a sequel to Spring-Heeled Jack but also that there's another in the sequence due later this year.

Burton & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon
It is 1863, but not the one it should be. Time has veered wildly off course, and now the first moves are being made that will lead to a devastating world war and the fall of the British Empire.
The prime minister, Lord Palmerston, believes that by using the three Eyes of Naga—black diamonds possessing unique properties—he’ll be able to manipulate events and avoid the war. He already has two of the stones, but the third is hidden somewhere in the Mountains of the Moon, the fabled source of the Nile.
Palmerston sends Sir Richard Francis Burton to recover it. For the king’s agent, it’s a chance to redeem himself after his previous failed attempt to find the source of the great river. That occasion had led to betrayal by his partner, John Hanning Speke. Now Speke is leading a rival expedition on behalf of the Germans, and it seems that the battle between the former friends may ignite the very war that Palmerston is trying to avoid!
Caught in a tangled web of cause, effect, and inevitability, little does Burton realize that the stakes are far higher than even he suspects.
A final confrontation comes in the mist-shrouded Mountains of the Moon, in war- torn Africa of 1914, and in Green Park, London, where, in the year 1840, Burton must face the man responsible for altering time: Spring Heeled Jack!

Burton and Swinburne’s third adventure is filled with eccentric steam-driven technology, grotesque characters, and bizarre events, completing the three-volume story arc begun in The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

 The third chronicle in the adventures of the explorer Richard Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne.  This follows on from almost immediately from the second volume where the defeat of the Russian interlopers and the acquisition of the second of the Naga diamonds has prompted / necessitated a return to Africa and the area of the source of the Nile in order to find the third diamond.

In this the two, along with their phalanx of friends are opposed by Burton's rival John Speke and the Prussians who are both supporting him and eugenicists.
The story unfolds in three different time frames; the present time of the expedition, in 1914 some 20/30 years after Burton's death in an Africa devastated by a terrible war that the British have lost to the rampaging plant and animals of the Prussians and in a 3rd time that I'm going to avoid discussing.

For me the book didn't sing as loudly or as clearly as the previous two.  It was, like the expedition, a bit of a slog in parts.  It never let up the pace and was quite fantastic for pretty much it's entirety but I adored the others and so this one even though it fell short of that level of love was still head and shoulders above most of the stuff I read to get me through the day.

I'm not sorry if this is the end of the series - even if the end was a little odd.  It's been a trip and I very much look forward to where Hodder goes next.


(As it happens since I wrote these reviews a little while back I've discovered that this was not the end of the series and another has been published since with a fifth on it's way.  Once I've found the time (and the cash) to read them I'll get back to you.)

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