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The Aylesford Skull

Written by James P Blaylock

Published by Titan Books • £7.99

Langdon St Ives, gentleman, scientist and adventurer, is having a bad day. A favour for the Royal Society has ended not only in a death but the loss of the priceless notebooks he was asked to procure and whilst Langdon isn’t to blame, he feels he should be. All set to return to his wife and children, Langdon narrowly avoids death as an apparent anarchist bomb rips through the Society’s buildings. What he doesn’t realise is that the bomb signifies the return of Doctor Ignacio Narbondon, his old nemesis. And Narbondo’s home is far closer to Langdon’s than he could ever have imagined.

James P Blaylock is one of the fathers of steampunk, literally rather than the usual empty hype that term’s associated with. In 1978, his short story, “The Affair Of The Ape-Box” was published and saw print shortly before both KW Jeter’s Morlock Night and Tim Powers’ The Gate Of Anubis, both of which are regarded as steampunk year zero. Blaylock has returned to the hero of that story, Langdon St Ives, over and over through his career and The Aylesford Skull is the latest in a line of short stories, novellas and books.

However, if you’re worried it’s impossible to jump on board this late in the game, don’t be. This is a perfect starting point for people interested in the two-fisted adventures of the Royal Society. All you need to know is explained in the opening couple of chapters and St Ives himself is one of a long, illustrious line of polite gentleman adventurers that takes in everybody from HG Wells’ time traveller to The Avengers’ John Steed. They’re all polite, refined men with a fondness for knowledge and a slightly more reluctant fondness for violence when provoked. In the hands of a lesser author, this would open the book up to the exact claims of romanticising imperialism that dog a lot of steampunk’s heels. However, Blaylock’s far too talented for that, using St Ives’ status as window dressing for a story which is far more personal than it first appears to be. Both St Ives and Narbondo are desperately concerned with their families, Narbondo as a way of dealing with his past and St Ives as a means of protecting his future, and the conflict between the two is driven entirely by that. There’s also a nice touch of the science vs spiritualism debate that would become overt some time after the book is set, making the appearance of a young Arthur Doyle not only welcome but a neat bridge between the two worlds, given Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism in later life.

But before you think this is some extended treatise on rationality in the era of steam, rest assured there’s a lot more going on here. Blaylock is clearly a lover of classic serials as the book has more cliffhangers per square inch than anything I’ve read in a long time. The abduction of St Ives’ son leads first him and his butler, then family servant Finn Conrad, and finally the mysterious Mother Laswell, owner of a nearby farm, to London to search for him. There, St Ives recruits some of his closest friends and these three plots – along with Narbondo’s – rotate through the spotlight with ever increasing speed.

This leads to a couple of action sequences which are shown to you from multiple angles, the consequences of one group’s actions being shown in another’s chapter before being fully explained. It’s a great technique, very simple, very effective and incredibly useful for ramping up tension. Blaylock doesn’t pull any punches either: the fights in the book as desperate, scrabbling and bloody as they can be, each showing just how evil, how depraved Doctor Narbondo is. He’s also quite happy to deploy some of the steampunk classics, and the finale, which involves an airship, a thunderstorm, an unusually creative science experiment and a prominent section of London is real white-knuckled, edge of the seat stuff. This is steampunk at full power and it’s a heady, thrilling read as a result.

Packed with high adventure, mad science and derring do, The Aylesford Skull is a perfect place to start the Langdon St Ives books and, with Titan re-releasing the other books in the series, there’s plenty to keep you and St Ives busy. Which is, I suspect, just how he likes it.

Alasdair Stuart