From Amazon: "It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. 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 possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit... "
I had come across the name James P. Blaylock several times in my reading, usually associated with Tim Powers, usually connected to the emergence of Steampunk. I had always meant to get around to checking him out, and now I can say I'm sorry I waited so long.
James P. Blaylock's The Aylesfore Skull, to me, was more of a throwback to pulp's thrilling adventures than the steampunk it claims to be. Gadgetry and airships were a part of that tradtion long before folks at sf conventions started wearing pith helmets. That being said, I really, really enjoyed this book. From the mysterious prologue to the mad dash of a plot that followed, the story constantly rushed forward. Things would slow down just enough to tease my curiousity once more before another mad dash would set forth. I enjoyed the steampunk elements, but they never got in the way of the story, which can happen in so many books labled as "the newest epic in the xxxx-subgenre."
I did happen to glance upon a review that didn't like Blaylock's characterization, claiming it tended to be shallow. I disagree. I knew enough about Langdon St. Ives (think part Sherlock Holmes, part Professor Challenger) to want him to thwart the evil plans of Dr. Narbondo. Again, following in the pulp tradition, you're not going to find any Hamlets running around London in these types of stories. When the protagonist was thinking back to a previous adventure in the first chapter, I knew this had to be a series character. One look on Amazon confirmed as much. To find the deeper St. Ives, perhaps one needs to read more of his earlier adventures. I'm sure you'd find some interesting tales and tangents, but what is in this volume serves. Everything in here works as a stand-alone yarn.
One of the great joys to me of this book was Blaylock's writing. The prose often reminded me of the best of those turn of the century writers. It was elegant and refined but never stuffy and awkward. He is defintely a writer I will be following in the future, just as St. Ives is a character I definitely want to revist.
Several, if not all, of the St. Ives adventures are available in ebook format at Amazon.com.
(Full Disclosure: Titan Books provided Nerdbloggers with a preview copy of this novel. We received no payment or compensation for this review and find the act of writing paid reviews pretty scuzzy).