The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock marks the author’s return to steampunk with an adventure featuring Victorian gentleman and inventor Langdon St. Ives (available January 15, 2013).
It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives—brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer—is coming to enjoy country life in Aylesford with his beloved wife and young children. However, a few miles to the north, a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself, a grave is opened and robbed of a skull. The suspected grave robber will turn out to be the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, an old nemesis who kidnaps St. Ives’s four-year-old son, Eddie. Narbondo vanishes into the night, racing for London and unthinkably nefarious schemes with St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro in pursuit…
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, James P. Blaylock wrote alternate-historical Victorian adventures including time travel and whimsical, fantastic devices, not to mention the losses, struggles, and world-saving triumphs of gentleman scientist Langdon St. Ives. If you read and adored these as so many did, you don’t need to know any more than that after decades away, Blaylock’s got a furnace stoked with new St. Ives, and this is just the first tale!
Steampunk is typically high-action, richly written historical fantasy with a moral core that honors, in style and theme, the then-contemporary tales of authors-turned-futurists like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Steampunk celebrates science, reason, and exploration, but especially, the kind of exploration requiring cleverness and rock-ribbed courage from explorers. What nature and degree of villain, you ask, does it take to threaten such gutsy and intrepid adventurers? Now that’s a fascinating question!
As a form, steampunk began with California fantasy authors Blaylock, Tim Powers, and K.W. Jeter, the latter who coined the term in fun, riffing on the recent emergence of “cyberpunk.” But the name stuck. And so has the popularity. Battling zeppelins, copper-jointed incendiary corsets, X-ray aviator goggles, and clockwork devices touched with genius and lethal magic were things readers hadn’t realized they needed. But recall there were dark days before travel mugs, too. Like steampunk’s heroes, if we can survive, we learn.
As befits this kind of adventure, the choreography in this novel is as intricate as the jeweled complications of an automatic watch. St. Ives will not be the only one trying to get little Eddie back, and Eddie’s not the only young victim. St. Ives will be accompanied by Hasbro, who’s evolved as so much more than a mere manservant and who could give Wodehouse’s Jeeves competition for preparedness and unflappability. But even more white hats include 1) Mother Laswell, a spiritualist and commune leader with an unfortunate past and a current admirer in 2) Bill Kraken, a man hardy, grounded, and true, if not as sharp as 3) Alice St. Ives, independent enough to challenge her brilliant husband and easily as brave as 4) Finn Conrad, a loyal young man St. Ives employed after a career as a thief and circus performer. That’s not close to all the people who you’ll meet and root for, and actually, there are even a few favorites among the gallery of baddies.
But if the many, many characters and their parallel points-of-view click along as interlocking gears of the story, it is the dark villain who employs mechanical advantage to amplify all of their actions to serve his will. Though he seems to have almost a preternatural hold over people, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo is outwardly at least a natural man, and a flawed one at that:
A man in an Inverness cape stood in the dock, waiting for them, having seen the Fenian fire, as it was called, arc up into the sky. He was well satisfied with the behavior of the projectile, one of his more useful inventions, although he would experiment with it further in order to make very certain it wouldn’t fail him when he had real need of it. He held up a lantern in front of him now, the light shining on his pale features. There was an evident hump on his back, the cape doing little to hide it, and his face was as pale as a moth, although his hair was black…He regarded the contents of the keg for a time, peering closely at the bones and bone chips that studded the rubble of coal—one of the bones entire, almost certainly a clavicle. He dipped his hand into the mix and then withdrew it, looking at the grit on his palm: coal dust, certainly, mixed with dry soil and miniscule bone fragments. He smelled and tasted it, and then dusted his hand on his trousers.
How is it possible that even among the underworld’s brutes, a pasty-faced hunchbacked man could wield such incredible power, instill such fear, and anticipate his opponents so well as to seem almost to have achieved clairvoyance? Well, as in the passage above, Narbondo flinches at nothing. The depths of his calculated depravity will be revealed along with his backstory, but time and time again, it’s Narbondo who understands other people’s limits whether or not they realize he has none. He knows how to motivate exquisitely, how to coerce enough to exact a bit of thuggery when he’s too busy and important to handle it himself. He sets the right price and the hook, so that even miles away, to the people executing his will, it’s as if he’s supervising in person. He also knows how to rid himself of troubled associates in a way that provides useful examples to the rest.
Narbondo’s seeming prescience comes from knowing precisely what different kinds of people will do under stress and coercion, including his noble adversary St. Ives. To assuage his unbounded curiosity and advance his cause, Narbondo leverages everyone to maximum advantage, good and evil alike, but he never trusts anyone enough to be leveraged. Probably wisest, since it’s by the training of his closest family and against them whom readers will learn he’s committed some of his deepest offenses. It’s not that Narbondo has no feelings at all, it’s just that satisfying them isn’t his end goal. At this advanced stage, his passions don’t distract him any longer than a glance at an attractive insect on a mounting pin. As his mother told St. Ives about the father, just as accurately describing the son:
“He spoke lightly of hellish things, as if there were no such place, if you take my meaning. He saw no virtue in sentiment. You believe yourself to be a rational man, Professor, but I tell you that there are depths of rationality that you’ve never plumbed, and never will, for you don’t have it in you to do so.”
The Aylesworth Skull is a spreading, many-faceted story that forces its heroes to thread their ways alone, and sometimes at cross-purposes, through perilous dangers in dark places. That makes it very good advice for them and for readers to keep an eye always toward the cold-eyed spider dancing at the center of the web.
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Clare Toohey is Clare2e here and also where she contributes on topics more writerly at Women of Mystery. She applauds the eccentric, and is an omnivorous literary grazer who wants a taste from your plate.
See all of Clare Toohey’s posts at Criminal Element.