Dec 10 2013

Review: The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock

2 out of 5 stars.

James P. Blaylock is considered one of the fathers of the steampunk genre. This book, The Aylesford Skull, marks his first novel in this genre in twenty years.

The story follows Professor St. Ives, an explorer and inventor, who has decided to settle down in the country with his wife and children after a life full of adventure and danger. The arrival of an old nemesis, Dr. Narbondo, puts a hitch in his plans when his son, Eddie, is kidnapped and he is forced to set out on a journey to rescue his son and put a stop to Narbondo’s depraved plans.

Things start out right with an atmospheric prologue including a dark and stormy night on the River Thames and an ambush by pirates of a mysterious cargo. The villain, Dr. Narbondo is introduced in the prologue as well, and he is revealed to be both clever and menacing, a villain worthy, in fact, of a Sherlock Holmes story in character and set up.

Rating the story itself, I have to give high marks to Blaylock for the idea of the storyline and the creativity of his ideas. Although the actual execution of his writing is not perfect, the underlying bones of the story are solid. He is very adept at describing creepy villains, villain’s lairs (one in particular with ghostly bridges hanging over a foggy city – very strong mental picture), creating a disturbing or spooky atmosphere and coming up with mystical and supernatural elements. His action sequences are solid and alive, and he several times makes use of dramatic irony to build suspense (before you ask, here is a definition of dramatic irony http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/170979/dramatic-irony).

I would say that the highlight of this book was, without a doubt, the action sequences. Each scene was well thought-out and choreographed, easy to follow, and delivered a satisfying thrill. Along with the action, the violence of the story is well-written. It is told with enough description to get the grit across but without being overly dramatic or needlessly bloodthirsty. This is clearly Blaylock’s forte and any time Blaylock wrote action I found myself actually entering into the story and becoming present within it.

The scenes in between the action, however, often felt a bit stale, unrealistic, or even made up of useless filler. For example, at more than one point in his quest to rescue his son, St. Ives is found to be having a sit down dinner with his friends and discussing all manner of topics from jam pots to bird watching. It happens on page 151, 186, and on page 266 and every time I couldn’t help but feel myself being pulled out of the story to wonder why on earth Blaylock bothered with these scenes. In an adventure book you never really want to feel the story slow down and I think Blaylock allowed for this to happen a bit too often.

The professor’s character was also a bit lacking in both substance and feeling. He is obviously a man that has lead a rich life and has deep feelings for his family, but I found Blaylock’s portrayal of him to be very superficial and two dimensional. This is a character that Blaylock has written multiple times in the past and he should therefore know how to write St. Ives perfectly, but instead I was left with the impression that Blaylock had no passion left for his main character.

This phenomenon is highlighted all the more by the immensely compelling secondary character of Finn Conrad. Finn is a hired hand on St. Ives’ farm and takes part in the adventure of the story in many stages. Where St. Ives felt distant and flat, Finn was exciting, colourful, had an intriguing background, and gave the story a lot of the heart and depth of feeling that it needed. I actually wanted the story to be about Finn Conrad instead of about St. Ives and it is a shame that Blaylock, who is obviously capable of writing compelling characters like Finn, would let his main character fall so thinly to the page.

I am not a steampunk connoisseur by any means, but I am familiar with the genre and therefore knew at least a bit of what to expect. In terms of action and suspense, this novel delivers, but in terms of the tell-tale things that really mark a novel out as steampunk rather than just Victorian era fiction there wasn’t much. There was indeed a lighter-than-air airship, and even a few passing mentions to toys being made out of gears and steam engines, but that was about it. In technical terms this is enough to warrant the steampunk label, but I was expecting a few more interesting inventions or even more of a mention of steam engines; these things really could have added to the character of the story and it was a disappointment that they weren’t present.

There were more than a few errors, typos, and clumsy writing in the story. For example the beginning of chapter one has a bit of a shaky tense issue between present tense and past tense. Then there are a few clumsy moments of repetition on page 91 where “would have been handsome” is said twice in the same paragraph and again on page 96 where the descriptors “Despite terror” and “despite horror” are written very closely together. On page 177 we get the typo “fred” instead of “fired” and on page 183 “nosed” instead of “nose”. Many times, the phrase “It came to him/It dawned on him” is used to begin a thought, as if the author simply couldn’t think of any other way to put it. Just one of these errors would have been easy to forgive, but when there are so many it becomes impossible to overlook them, especially when one considers this is a professionally edited and published work.

Lastly, a rather fun inclusion in this story is the arrival of a character named “Arthur Doyle” (on page 147). Although never expressly introduced as the author of the Sherlock Holmes books it is all too obvious that this is indeed the famous Arthur Conan Doyle by the comments and descriptors given to him. His inclusion is likely an homage to the stories that influenced and paved the way for the steampunk genre, and it is certainly a veiled suggestion that the stories that Doyle would write, and especially his clever and evil villains, may have come out of, at least partially, the adventure he shared with Professor St. Ives.

The Aylesford Skull is indeed a thrilling steampunk adventure. I enjoyed the story, the time period, and the genre. My only wish would be for a bit more writing prowess in order to show off Blaylock’s great creativity.


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