The Aylesford Skull is the fourth novel in the Narbondo series, following the adventures of the brilliant but eccentric Professor Langdon St. Ives and written by one of the founding fathers of the Steampunk genre - James P Blaylock.
Not only has Blaylock won a number of awards, he's also been recommended by authors including Michael Swanwick, William Gibson, Charles de Lint, Tim Powers and even Philip K Dick, who when speaking about Baylock's Narbondo series was quoted as saying "A Magical world, magically presented... having journeyed there you will not wish to leave, nor ever to forget" - in my opinion you can't get higher praise than that.
A lot to live up to then in this first genre novel by the author in over 20 years, it is however one that delivers on it's promises and stands out as a novel of some puissance, a potency that encourages a reflection and demands attention. The story follows that Langdon is at home in Aylesford with his family while nearby a steam launch is over-run by prates (the crew murdered) and at the same time a grave robbed of a skull. The suspected perpetrator of the latter act is the infamous nemesis of Langdon, Dr Ignacio Narbondo. When the Doctor kidnaps Landgon's son Eddie, he races into London in pursuit.
As you might expect from one of the fathers of Steampunk, The Aylesford Skull is set within a Victorian era with a steampunk theme including contraptions such as airships, photo projectors and strange devices to contact the spirit realm. What I didn't expect was that this is combined with a strong occult flavour - replete with spirits, ghosts and magic. To be honest the cabalistic theme is much more prevalent than the steampunk however given the setting, characters and story it feels like the right choice, just don't read the book expecting to be drawn into a strictly steampunk led story as you are likely to be a little bit disappointed.
The novel has plenty of twists turns and lots of action, enough to keep even the most flighty of attentions firmly fixed - chases, fights, explosions and of course kidnappings all add to the rich, vibrant story. The narrative is reassuringly Victorian in style however that does also mean it can feel a little dry in places and the dialogue quite formal. This formality extends to some of the characters too making them seem a little wooden at times and while this is to be expected it does detract a little. The quality of the prose more than makes up for this however, as does the richly detailed characters - especially that of Langdon himself who appears as a mix of Sherlock Holmes and Indiana Jones, with a witty and philosophical air that is quite a delight.
I was a little confused that such a character didn't pay closer attention to his kids after learning that his wife's (freshly caught) fish had been poisoned. As a parent myself the first thought running through my mind would be to keep a closer eye on the children after finding out that potentially an arch nemesis was at large and poisoning the food. Once Langdon gets moving though he does become the character I expected and at times becomes quite inventive. The subtle humour at play through the novel works incredibly well and some of the dialogue between characters (notably between Langdon and his Wife Alice) is simply inspired.
Narbondo makes a great bad guy, complete with hunched bad and twirling cape he stands out as a larger-than-life pantomime-esque caricature of evil and it's here that the occult theme plays to it's strength, as does Langdon's method of using science and technology in order to interact with that of the spirit world. this slightly over-the-top bad guy actually works much better than I would have expected and is the perfect Moriarty counterpart to Langdon's Holmes.
The more you read the more you come to appreciate this subtle Steampunk setting, including the well described juxtaposition of the class system that played a large part in Victorian era London. The gentile and elegant lives contrast sharply with the filthy streets and savage inhabitants of the grimy Spitalfields area creating a realistic edge that helps to ground the story. In the end I enjoyed The Aylesford Skull much more than I thought I would, it's a fast, rich and thoughtful thriller that is as different as it is clever and as bold as it is beautiful.
Written on Wednesday 30th January 2013 by Antony.
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