The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
Steampunk / Science Fiction / Alt History
A few months ago, I picked up a book called The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man by Mark Hodder because it had a seriously steampunky cover and it had the phrase “Clockwork Man” in it (I’m easy sometimes). I didn’t realize at the time that it was the second in a series. It really wasn’t until midway through the second chapter that I realized there was a large chunk of the story that I had missed and blanks that I was only getting partially filled. And yet I still enjoyed The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, so I picked up the first book to fill in all those blanks.
The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack is a bit of a strange book. It’s an alternate take on Victorian England, focusing around infamous explorer Richard Francis Burton investigating strange occurrences in a version of London that looks familiar if it weren’t for the flying armchairs, the cursing messenger birds, wolf-people and strange bug-like modes of transportation. Hodder creates a fun world and he conveniently weaves a reason for the obvious changes in this Victorian age – time travel.
Spring Heeled Jack is an urban legend that parents use to keep their teenage girls in line, only in reality he’s a time traveler from 2202, who is kind of a moron and screwed up his own timeline so that he will inevitably never be born and thus is stuck in the 1860s. By getting stuck, he “inadvertently” advances technology by leaps and bounds before certain inventions were ever supposed to be thought of. As his story continues, he continues to screw up over and over again, and making me want to beat my head against the wall.
But for most of the book, you don’t know the exact details of his strange effect on the Victorian age. Instead the reader follows the adventures of Burton and his not-quite-so-alcoholic friend Algernon Swinburne as they fight wolf-men and a previous political enemy that has somehow turned into an albino panther-person. It’s all incredibly bizarre and Burton is the first to admit that things are seriously weird around here, but he’s a competent hero, who makes smart choices and isn’t the type to keep secrets from his allies. Even when he gets punched by a screaming madman in a diving helmet covered in blue fire, he remains mostly coherent and intelligent. Burton is the type of hero you want in an adventurous romp such as this.
Two-thirds of the way the main narrative comes to a screeching stop in order to tell the complete story of the man who because the Spring-Heeled Jack myth. This threw me out of the story and caused me to put the book down for a couple of days without much interest in picking it up. Despite being set in a ridiculous version of a past time, Burton’s story felt real and like a serious adventure. This new story was told by an insane man, who was no longer a man about a guy from the future who had long since lost his mind. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been so long. It was nearly 100 pages of someone else’s back story before we returned to the main plot. It just seemed like an odd choice of narrative design – instead of sprinkling pieces of the side story throughout the main narrative, Hodder chose to halt the story’s momentum completely to give chapter after chapter of what was essentially exposition.
I’m not sure if I would have liked The Strange Affair of Spring- Heeled Jack more or less if I hadn’t read Clockwork Man beforehand, but I can say that I thought Clockwork Man had much better pacing and, despite it’s crazy experiments in eugenics and the mystical nature of the main plot, felt more real and rounded out than Burton’s first adventure. All I can say is that I believe Hodder did a decent job with the first in this series, but the second novel is much better all around. I’m glad I filled in the blanks for the sake of reading the third book whenever it comes out, but I just wish this book had been a little shorter or better integrated so it didn’t seem twice as long as it already was.