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Book Review: The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock

The Aylesford_Skull coverLangdon St. Ives is back in the steampunk adventure The Aylesford Skull, a blend of mystery, science fiction, and fantasy.

At the book’s beginning, St. Ives has settled down to a nice, comfortable family life in the country. He’s looking forward to the arrival of his new airship, thinking of keeping an elephant in the barn, and not at all planning on hunting down the supposed anarchists blowing up portions of London or in figuring out what his old enemy, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo is planning. Unfortunately, Narbondo doesn’t share this indifference and kidnaps St. Ives’ son, Eddie. St. Ives and his allies, old and new, set out to find the boy and, incidentally, to foil one of Narbondo’s nastier schemes.

It was good to see St. Ives and the gang in action again, and The Ayelsford Skull is a real page turner with a marvelous setting, and I loved seeing St. Ives as a happy, somewhat eccentric family man, enjoying his country life.

That said, I do object to St. Ives clutching the Idiot Ball quite as hard as he did when the case begun (No, not after the first explosion, after that). Even the fact that he acknowledges it later doesn’t quite make up for the fact that this supposedly intelligent man is so deliberately, willfully blind. If your worst enemy were in the area and had just casually tried to poison your entire family, would you assume he was going to go do his dastardly deeds elsewhere and leave you and yours alone? No? Neither would I. There’s a second, somewhat more forgivable blunder before he really hits his stride.

After that, the book takes off as St. Ives and his allies start working together and separately to save Eddie and, possibly, London. I liked that last point: St. Ives has to think about what his goals are, and he chooses family first. It might not be the most heroic choice, but it is a very human one.

I loved the gathering of allies, the ever-cheerful Tubby, the loyal Bill Kraken, valiant Finn, and the redoubtable Mother Laswell. Alice, St. Ive’s wife, was amazing. I wish she had played a bigger part. Consider this:

“There exist in London what have come to be called ‘the police,'” she continued “You seem already to be aware of that fact. I distinctly recall your mentioning only five minutes ago that at least one of them was there on the grounds of the Club… before you made your foray into the tunnel. Did it occur to you that they might take some interest in the very thing that was interesting you at that moment?”

This, by the way, is after he has been mildly foolish, and she is warning him to be careful. When things get really serious, so does she. She does not, unfortunately, do much investigating. She does keep a level head and take care of what she can, and I hope she’s more involved in any future St. Ives adventures, though considering the twenty years between adventures, there’s no guarantee of more.

Of course, a good portion of the fun in any steampunk work is the setting, and The Aylesford Skull does not disappoint. There’s the glory of Victorian London, a beautiful airship, a mechanical elephant, a dangerous explosive that combines the technological and the occult, and a myriad of tiny details that make the world feel lived in, plus a nice scattering of familiar historical figures like Conan Doyle, who joins the hunt.

Recommended.

The book will be released January 15, 2013 and will be available in paperback, epub, and Kindle formats.

Disclosure: Advance review copy received from the publisher.

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