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

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.

Oct 19 2013

Review: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

4 out of 5 stars.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal is the first book in a series of mystery novels with heroine Maggie Hope set in London in WWII.

The beginning of a book tells the reader a lot of things about the story they are about to read. They either decide they are interested and can’t wait to read on or they decide to put the book down and move onto more promising reads. MacNeal knows her genre well and this novel starts off with a wonderful atmosphere, some impending doom, a false scare, and lastly – what we all hope for in a good mystery novel – a murder.

If this book has a fault (and that is a big “if”) it is that after the exciting prologue things seems to stagnate for a while and nothing really big happens in the way of plot. Maggie gets a job working for the Prime Minister and we are introduced to the people that matter in her life and her back story. However, in a poetic way, this actually works with the story mirroring Britain hovering in “the bore war” as they waited for the inevitable air assault from Germany. The excitement and action do begin again in earnest after the bombs begin falling on Britain and after this event it hardly lets up. All the effort that went into what I would call the first act to set up the backstory of the characters and their emotional ties, pays off big time in act two because MacNeal can focus much more fully on the action itself without having to over explain why the characters feel or act a certain way.

MacNeal did meticulous research for this novel, adding to the ability of the reader to immerse themselves in the story. Often when dealing with a historical novel the author can overtax its readers with long passages on history or, a much worse offense, simply omit it altogether and allow the reader to fill in the gaps themselves. In this case it is obvious that MacNeal soaked up the time period and the people as much as she could before she began writing. She steeped herself in British culture, the landscape of London, the war records, and real-life people who lived through the war and worked with Mr. Churchill. The research is so thorough that the reader feels as if they have actually been transplanted back in time and can visualize, feel, smell, and hear London as it was back then.

Certain things really help to enhance the believability of this story: the dialogue the characters undertake regarding their political views in multiple scenes includes viewpoints not only from the British, but from the Irish and the tensions caused by the IRA, from Americans, and even from German sympathizers. If these characters had lived in London during that time, and especially if they were working with the PM all of these issues would have been on the forefront of their minds and so their inclusions were not only important but necessary.

The descriptions of the British people’s customs and national personality were not only accurately, but I think, lovingly portrayed as only one with a deep appreciation and connection with the culture could manage. I found myself actually wondering if MacNeal were British or American herself (before you Google it, she’s American), which is some of the highest praise I can render given my own love for the British culture. The little bit of humour infused into the novel is also befitting to an English mystery novel. British humour is its own entity, and I believe the humour presented is quite the right style. For example, on page 14 a character states, “There’ll be no blood, toil, tears, or sweat until I have some goddamned tea.” And on page 66 the PM makes a joke about labels for boxes of 12-inch gun muzzle protectors stating “I want a label for every box… saying ‘British, size medium.’ That will show the Nazis…who’s the master race!”

MacNeal also has a wonderful handle on the landscape of London – how rails were torn down for metal for munitions, the protection of important monuments such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the blackout covers for the windows. Her descriptions are, at times, breathtaking, and are often used to set up a coming scene. For example on page 42, after a paragraph description of Herrick Street, MacNeal concludes with, “Under the heaviness of the water droplets, flowering trees wept pale pink petals down into the gutters.” and on page 121, describing the attack of the Luftwaffe “There were hundreds…of planes circling overhead, black insects against the sky, leaving silvery vapor trails against the blood-red clouds, darkening in the setting sun.”

MacNeal’s dedication to research didn’t just apply to her rendering of Wartime Britain – but also to her main character, Maggie. Maggie is supposed to be a math whiz of sorts and, before the war, was going to study at the prestigious MIT University. So when it comes time for Maggie to use her skills in coding, it is important to the integrity of the character that a little something about codes is actually conveyed to the reader. MacNeal could have taken the lazy way out and used any number of literary tricks to avoid actually having to spell out or make any codes, but she didn’t. We, as a reader, are actually walked through numerous codes from beginning to end, making Maggie’s character very believable and concrete.

The last bit of research that was necessary to make this story a success was dedicated to the person of Winston Churchill himself. The interactions that Mr. Churchill has with Maggie and the various other characters are obviously fictional representations, but as MacNeal spent a great deal of time in conversation with actual private secretaries for Mr. Churchill, I think we can rest assured that if the PM had really met any of MacNeal’s characters, his exchanges with them would be quite close to how MacNeal describes them. The charisma of Churchill is very evident as his sometimes unruly behaviour, and even a touch of that marvelous wit he was known for. It is a tricky thing to represent a real person in a work of fiction, but I think that MacNeal treated the person of Churchill with respect and honesty and her rendering of him feels very natural and true.

Another point that MacNeal delivered the goods on was that in all the best mysteries it is never enough to have one encompassing mystery to focus on, but rather you need to egg your readers on by introducing more and more intrigue as the storyline continues. This book has multiple mysteries that need solving ranging from the murder in the prologue, to the truth about what happened to Maggie’s parents, to the outcome of a plot to hand Britain over to the Nazis to a big twist involving one of the main characters. Each story is interesting in itself, but MacNeal made good use of switching between different stories to build suspense in each one and matching the level of excitement and climax in each story to keep the reader wanting to read on. MacNeal also made sure to give each mystery a personal edge to at least character so that there is a satisfying payoff not only in terms of action and suspense, but also emotionally for the reader.

Knowing this book was to have sequels, I was looking for a few things out of the ending – all of which I got. There was excitement and action almost up to the last, which leaves the reader feeling satisfied and engaged and also hints that there will be more action to come in the next books. It was also important for the reader to have a proper ending for Maggie’s first adventure and MacNeal handles her denouement perfectly with just the right amount of reflection on events past, plans for the future, and a beautifully worded, hopeful last paragraph.

So, if you’re like me, you’ll be heading out to grab a copy of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy after you finish Mr. Churchill’s Secretary.

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