Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder

He…hello? Are you all still there? No. I thought not. Excellent. This means no witnesses to my jolly rusty leap back into this blogging business. I have read a number of books since my absence, one of which was promised to be an exciting thing which never happened and which would take too much energy to try again any time soon. I have formulated a new plan. I have decided to come back to you with a review of a book the follows one I was very fond of and got very attached to. Its sibling is a different creature and correspondingly it has a different blurb! HURRAH!

A clockwork man is abandoned in Trafalgar Square. A ghost displays a craving for diamonds. An aristocrat returns ten years after being lost at sea and instigates riots in London. The Rakes are indulging in seances. The Technologists are growing giant insects and transforming them into steam-driven vehicles. The British Empire’s capial is in chaos, and in the midst of it all, Sir Richard France Burton and his wayward assistant, Algernon Swinburn, are beginning to suspect that someone, somewhere, is up to no good!

The links to the previous book are present from the beginning which in my brain makes this more of a sequel than part of a series, which I really prefer. I find books that are just interchangeable blocks on a vague timeline less impressive somehow than ones that weave themselves together over a series. We hear of John Hanning Speke, malaria, Africa and the rest. Like the last book too there’s a surreal blend of stuff that actually existed and stuff I’m really glad didn’t. The Tichborne Affair was a vague note somewhere in my head, as were most of the book's secondary characters. Irritated as I am with Victorian London (apparently) being the place to be, I can’t help but be absorbed by some of its most interesting facets. World history is mentioned more frequently too, with an Ireland apparently over-run by Triffids and Europe being hit by the technologists as London has been. It has all the gorgeous familiarity of history and all the wonderful chaos of flux. It’s as satisfying in this book as it was in the last, but not at all repetitive or formulaic.

Burton is undoubtedly the main dude (or protagonist as I believe some people insist on calling them) but he never appears to have been forced into the plot simply because of that fact and is never determined for the spotlight. This is usually the case with protagonists, and can be either really irritating or really funny, even if it’s done deliberately or well. The balance is rarer. That is I’m rarely not annoyed by a protagonist at least a bit (because everything is always about them, isn’t it?) but Burton isn’t irritating. He’s cold, a little distant and maybe hard to relate to (I suspect why there are so many loveable secondary characters) but he’s not a tit. This fact makes for rewarding reading. 

The good things about the last book remained so in this one. There were the continued insane (and gross) inventions as Albertian Britain gets to grips with its shiny new Eugenics, The Rakes getting into their amoral japes (the scamps) and real life geniuses getting a bit fucked up. There is also finally the recognition in print that Babbage sounds quite a lot like cabbage, and for this alone the book is worth the cover price. The technology is fucking mental and stops just short of being actually horrific because it’s so cartoonish. Focusing too much on hollowed out animals brings a chap down, you know. Describing the eugenecists folly with cartoonish horror rather than just horrified horror made it clear that this is a morally dubious endeavour but not so clear that you wonder why Burton isn’t dropping everything to ensure that no animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture uh…Albertian caper.

The bad things actually got worse. I distinctly remember reviewing the last book and ranting about a nurse with a gun who was the exotic eye candy for our recently single protagonist. Somehow Michael Madsen got involved. Look I don’t know, okay? I talked of how wonderfully the most downfally downfalls of our hideous imperialism had been smoothed over and changed so that society was just a tiny bit less prejudiced than it had been. However, I said, the women were contributing but treated as decoration. And, I said, this would not do. Ah, said the author, I’m mimicking the ways of the time. Fair enough, said I, but still, you know. And so it was that I addressed the issue of the sexism in the last book. WOULD that I had the content to cry sexism this time around. Would that I could, dear reader, but I cannot. The reason being is that there are a handful of women mentioned in this book in any amount of detail. One of whom is Mrs. Angell, Burton’s housekeepery housekeeper. The second is Florence Nightingale who has been kidnapped and therefore appears as a plot point and only once as a character with dialogue and Miss Mayson, a swan breeder who again is mentioned most often by other characters rather than appearing herself as a character. Madam Blavatsky features prominently later on, though in what capacity I cannot say for fear of spoilers. She is a wonderful character, and I would analyse her further and pick apart interesting morsels of gender related issues but it would be a MASSIVE FUCKING SPOILER. Suffice to say, that despite her being a fine character she does not negate the fact that I spent quite a lot of my time thinking “Does Sir Richard Francis Sexpot Burton EVER speak to women?” There are some prostitutes, a housekeeper and a nurse. I hate to be the person who bangs on about “what about the women?” I realise it gets dull and wearing and that not everybody cares. However, I only ask where the women are when there are no women. We are fifty percent of the earth’s population and there are about 8 of us in this 400+ page book. What the ACTUAL fuck? Like, really. Actually really, what the fuck?

The cover reviews are the same as last time, and I pretty much agree. Also, it won an award. Obviously 4 mell-heads from me can only send it to ever higher reaches.