BURTON AND SWINBURNE IN THE STRANGE AFFAIR OF SPRING-HEELED JACK
by Mark Hodder
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Steampunk has become a very hot subgenre, establishing certain tropes very quickly. At the same time, many steampunk stories have become clichéd very quickly, so in writing novels or short stories with a steampunk background, it is already important for the author to find a new take on the subgenre or find themselves part of the herd rather than rising above it. Mark Hodder's debut novel, Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is set in what should be the height of the Victorian period, 1861, but, in addition to the steampunk elements, there are major differences between the world of the novel and our own world.
A debate between Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke scheduled in our world for 1864 is scheduled for three years earlier in the alternative Hodder has created. While seemingly minor, that change is indicative of greater changes which slowly become evident. Not only does Hodder present a world with marked changes from our own, but even within the parameters he has set, things begin to seem rather strange as the story progresses. After the night Burton was supposed to debut Speke, which appears to have ended in the same way it does in our own world, Burton finds himself offered the position of an agent for the Crown, essentially given carte blanche to investigate what he sees fit. And what he finds himself investigating is a series of disappearances of chimney sweeps which appear to be tied into the presence of werewolves in London.
The werewolves of London, however, are only a small part of this different world, which is filled with factions trying to pull the world from the eighteenth into the twentieth century. The Rakes and the Libertines are trying to impose their own version of morality and art on Great Britain, while the technologists see the potential in science, from the genetic and evolutionary ideas of Mendel and Darwin to the engineering feats of Brunel, as the way to rise above the short, brutal existence of humans.
Hodder first begins be presenting Burton's investigations, which include several run-ins with Spring-Heeled Jack, a man whose head glows and is able to leap enormous distances and disappears. Jack's actions and his conversations with Burton make little sense until Hodder begins to tell the story of Henry Beresford, the Marquess of Waterford and founder of the Libertine movement. Beresford's story explains the various actions of Spring-Heeled Jack, showing that Hodder has incorporated an interesting look at cause-and-effect which is often ignored in science fiction stories of this type. Taken with Burton's investigations, Beresford's story ties in the various enigma of the historical Spring-Heeled Jack who appeared in Great Britain from 1837 through 1877, using the science fictional elements of the story to explain the unexplainable.
Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is the first of a series of novels Hodder is writing featuring the explorer Richard Burton and his sidekick the poet Algernon Swinburne. The different personalities of the characters, although tied together by the common need for adventure, promises that whatever situations Hodder elects to present them in in future volumes, there is plenty of room for their internal dynamics to add to the drama of their investigations and Crown agents.
By incorporating historical characters and situations with the trappings of steampunk and using science fictional explanations to solve real world mysteries, Hodder has successfully place his book above the run-of-the-mill and clichéd steampunk stories. In many ways, the common tropes of the subgenre take a backseat to the plot, characters, and even setting, which is how it should be and the steampunk aspects only come to the fore when they are necessary to move the story forward.