James P. Blaylock's latest novel, The Aylesford Skull, opens in true steampunk style--under a cloudy night sky, with smoke streaming from a steam boat on an empty river. The first few chapters of the novel continue in much the same vein--we get bombs, people with lanterns lurking in sewers, grave robbery, murder, ghosts, and conspiracies. It's all very fun and entertaining, particularly if you enjoy the steampunk genre.
These aspects of the novel, however, are not what set it apart from other similar works. Rather, what distinguishes Blaylock's novel can be found in a fishing scene in Chapter 4.
At first glance, The Aylesford Skull has much in common with other steampunk classics. There's an airship, which is awesome, lots of lurking in dark tunnels and sewers, and an object (the titular Aylesford skull) that is both a technological marvel and a potential gateway to another world. Much of Blaylock's description called to mind the visuals of Guy Ritchie's recent Sherlock Holmes movies--there is a predominance of blues, grays, and darkness.
In fact, the connection to the Sherlock Holmes novels is one that Blaylock intentionally solicits. His protagonist, Professor Langdon St. Ives, is described on the back of the book as "brilliant but eccentric," which definitely invites comparisons to Sherlock Holmes. Furthermore, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle joins up with St. Ives during the course of the novel, working with St. Ives, his servant Hasbro, and an assortment of other characters to rescue St. Ives' son from the nefarious Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Such intertextuality is enjoyable, and shows how Blaylock, one of the founders of steampunk, is continuing to think about how his work relates to other texts in the genre.
For me, however, what truly made The Aylesford Skull worth reading is that Blaylock makes sure to provide real, tangible stakes for the adventures that his characters have. St. Ives is not just chasing after an evil genius who is hellbent on destroying the world--no, he is chasing after an evil genius who has crept into his home and kidnapped his four-year-old son, Eddie. With many steampunk novels and movies, the danger is all just part of the fun and games; here, the danger seems real.
One of the most effective ways that Blaylock accomplishes this is through contrasting settings. While much of the novel is set at night, in dark tunnels and seedy areas of London, certain parts of the novel abruptly shift to St. Ives' home in the country. For me, this happened most noticeably and effectively in chapter 4, when all of a sudden, we see Alice St. Ives (Langdon St. Ives' wife) fishing for pike. While there is still quite a bit of blue in the scene, it's accented with the greens and brightness of being outdoors.
The contrast between dark and light, urban and rural, adventure and home, draws attention to each setting--and also causes some of the contrast to bleed over into the opposite setting. Home is not just a place of safety and light--it's also a place where someone comes in the night and steals your child. A fishing trip is certainly an afternoon in the fresh air, but it is "a brooding and timeless air." We are not just going out on an adventure with Langdon St. Ives--rather, the danger of that adventure is coming into our homes. It's an unsettling feeling, yet it is this feeling that helps The Aylesford Skull rise above other similar adventure stories and that demonstrates that James Blaylock continues to be a pioneer in the steampunk genre.
By Jen Miller