Mention the term “steampunk,” and the first thing that’ll come to my mind are mildly irritating cosplayers in Edwardian garb – unfortunate because as a literary sub-genre, “steampunk” has produced some damn fine entertainments. Among the acknowledged originators of the form, James P. Blaylock is one of the best-known, and his latest offering, The Aylesford Skull (Titan Books) shows him at the top of his game. Subtitled “A Tale of Langdon St. Ives,” the rousing yarn reads like something that could have been serialized in The Strand at the end of the 19th century. Not for nothing does one of its supporting characters turn out to be a young Conan Doyle.
The book concerns a battle of wits between scientist/explorer Langdon St. Ives and his longtime nemesis, the loathsome hunchback Dr. Ignacio Nardondo. Narbondo has retrieved the skull of his young brother Edward, murdered by his own hands as a child, to use as an otherworldly projector.
When he kidnaps St. Ives’ four-year-old son Eddie from the professor’s idyllic home in the English countryside, a chase ensues that leads to the darkest streets of London and an assassination plot designed to frame the British prime minister Gladstone. Hovering around the proceedings: the ghost of the young boy Narbondo killed, who not incidentally shares the same name as St. Ives’ son.
Much of the book is devoted the search and rescue of Eddie St. Ives, the action divided between the professor and his chums (among which includes the aforementioned creator of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger); Mother Laswell, a matronly figure who runs a nearby commune named Hereafter Farm, who shares a biological connection to both ghost and villain; and Finn Conrad, a scrappy former circus boy familiar with the Dickensian streets of London.
Blaylock keeps the action – a series of near fatal encounters and escapes – diverse enough to keep you reading even if the Lovecraftian specifics surrounding the titular skull never fully gel. His period details and non-ironic use of 19th-century imagineering (Is there an airship in the story? Of course there is!) prove engaging, while his straight-faced heroes and more-than-dastardly villains are colorful and distinct.
Though at core a peril-packed actioner, Aylesford Skull also displays a concern with the nature of family and friendship, which also provides much of the book’s heart. And when young Eddie also effects his own (short-term) escape, you can’t help cheering for the little scaper.