Robert Rankin’s latest work takes place in the Victorian era as depicted in his earlier novel The Witches Of Chiswick (which you’ve probably never heard of). For those of you unfamiliar with that work, it depicts a Victorian era far ahead of our time, due to the works of Charles Babbage and Nikola Tesla being given their due in that time rather than being appreciated after their deaths. As a result, this version of history features spaceships going to other planets (due to the aforementioned scientists reverse-engineering Martian spacecraft from the Wells canon) and flying cars (due to the wireless transmission of electricity not requiring a heavy engine or something – as impossible now as it was in 1895, when the book is set).
This particular work centers on a curiosity show assistant called George Fox who, with the help of his supervisor Professor Coffin, goes on a quest to find the holy grail of attractions: the Japanese Devil Fish Girl of the title. Along the way, they encounter Martians in the H.G. Wells style, famous showman P.T. Barnum and programming prodigy Ada Lovelace (the daughter of Lord Byron; she receives an inexplicable age-down here so that she can be a love interest for the main character).
Rankin provided his own illustrations for the book and has received a credit for this in the title pages. The illustrations consist of the front cover for the book and the letters that start each chapter. (I have a signed poster of these on my wall.) They are very well drawn, featuring subjects that are relevant to the book, such as an octopus…thing (it might be a Martian), a raygun with love hearts around it (his wife is known to the fandom as Lady Raygun) and a translation robot that strongly resembles a Dalek. When I first saw the picture, I thought it was indeed a steampunk Dalek.
As my friends know, I am something of a Rankin fan (there’s an understatement if ever I wrote one), and so naturally it follows that I have been eagerly anticipating this book. This is by no means my favourite work of his (that honour goes to The Most Amazing Man Who Ever Lived which you’ve also probably never heard of), but it makes a good addition to my collection all the same and was worth the wait.
This is Rankin’s thirty-second novel, and, for my money, it is a good book. Maybe a little slow going at first, but once I’d gotten into it I didn’t want to stop reading. This is a fun ride through the splendours of an alternate history and alien worlds. If you’re a fan of the steampunk genre as a whole (or, indeed, if you are a returning reader to the world of Rankin), then you’ll like this. If not, give it a go anyway. I’m always looking to meet more fans of the great man’s works and hopefully this book will deliver some new ones.