the Little Red Reviewer

Steampunk goes Mad Science!

Posted on: March 18, 2011

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder

Published March 2011

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher

why I read it: adored the first book in the series, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, reviewed here.

Enter to Win a Copy of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, here. Contest is open until March 21.

Welcome to Victorian England, just not the Victorian England you know.  The Queen is dead (so perhaps I should call it Albertian England?), scientists are having a field day with steam powered inventions, eugenicists are having a ball with genetically modified foodstuffs and insects grown to obscene proportions and magic is real.  Well, not magic exactly, but mind control, astral projections, spiritualism, mediumistic techniques to read the future is all very, very real. And it all started back in 1837, when a certain someone had such very good intentions and tried so very hard to fix what had gone horribly wrong.

It’s now 1862, and Sir Richard Francis Burton and his assistant Algernon Swinburne have recovered from the Spring Heeled Jack Affair. The Technologist faction is under control, Isembard Kingdom Brunel has made his new life public, the British government is playing favorites regarding the American War between the states, and Burton continues to be bitter about being passed over for funding for African expeditions.    Although Hodder provides plenty of background information and these are fairly episodic adventures so far, I am reluctant to say you can read The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man as a standalone, as there is a overarching plotline that I believe will become more important than any one adventure.

Hodder  gets the action, adventure, and mystery started right off the bat. Burton and Swinburne investigate an abandoned yet beautifully constructed clockwork man in the middle of a public square, which leads to a theft of famous black diamonds, the untimely death of Charles Babbage, a disturbing  vision of Burton’s future, a homeless philosopher who seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder, the mythology behind the rest of the black diamonds, and a haunted estate. Oh, and fairies, whatever you do, don’t forget the fairies.

And then, suddenly, Burton is tasked by the prime minister to “investigate the Tichborne Claimant”. Regardless of if you know your British history (or not, in my case), what’s coming is completely not what you think it is. Because this is Hodder’s England, where anything and everything  is possible.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is most definitely a “middle” book in a series, as there is a lot, and I mean a LOT of set up for what’s coming down the line. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack pretty much stayed in London and the surrounding areas, whereas Curious Case of the Clockwork Man has forays all over the place, tension between international political factions, and some clues that Burton and Swinburne’s adventures will soon involve much more than Scotland Yard and short train trips. I am highly looking forward to the international adventures of Burton & Swinburne.

If I were to simply categorize this as “steampunk”, how would you know about all the mad science? The inventions made by scientists who don’t know when to stop?  The Frankenstein-ish creatures sewn together with stolen parts, the steam men with human brains, the city buses made from the carcasses of giant insects, half a dozen other imaginative inventions, creatures, mythologies and possible futures.  And don’t even get me started on what happens in Ireland, except that I want one of those cactus gun SO bad. “Mad-science-punk”? Is there such a thing? There is now!

It’s obvious Hodder is passionate about the time period he writes about, from the family histories he delves into, to the politics and famous people, to social factions both real and made up, the self referential humor, and especially the British folklore and rumors that he builds his alternate England around. Half the fun of reading The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man was googling and wikipedia-ing everything Burton gets involved with  to see what really happened (surprisingly, most of it), and what was fabricated (the cactus gun, for starters).

Was this a perfect book? If I said anything other than “not quite”, I’d be lying. The sheer quantity of brilliant mad science ideas and globe spanning ramifications Hodder crams into this book makes me feel like a jerk for nit picking, doubly so because this has been such a hotly anticipated release.  At the beginning especially, focus was a huge issue for me.  Characters come and go very quickly, some not to reappear for hundreds of pages.  Burton is being pulled this way and that, things are just happening too quickly for me.  I recall The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack having some similar issues with focus. The first hundred or so pages of The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man I truly had no clue what I was supposed to be focusing on, and that bothered me. There is plenty of background snippets for those of us who forgot details from Spring Heeled Jack or are reading Hodder for the first time, which was very nice, however there were few, if any, early reminders that spiritualism, mind control, out of body experiences and the like all work here.  Characters were acting as if these spiritual elements were completely normal, where to me much of them felt out of place because their legitimacy wasn’t explained. My only advice for those of you who are starting to get nervous is please, just go with it. Everything comes together beautifully at the end, I promise.

Nitpicking aside, will I continue to watch Mark Hodder very closely and read everything he publishes? Abso-fricken-lutely.  The mad science ideas this man dreams up are so creative and unbelievably incredible, so Girl Genius on caffeine and speed,  so wonderfully weird and hilarious, and every single one with it’s social ramifications and unintended side effects leading  up to possibilities for a very dangerous future. I don’t know if I want Hodder to keep working around well-ish known British folklore, or go crazy to the nth degree in this steampunk mad science sandbox he’s created, but whatever he chooses, I’ll be there.

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3 Responses to "Steampunk goes Mad Science!"

Sorry I’m so late to this party! Wonderful review; I’m now an email subscriber!

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I completely agree. It’s a great read. One slight addition: spiritualism was a completely “normal” part of life in Victorian England with regular seances and table turnings in the home, and well-attended public sessions when mediums performed. Indeed, people like Conan Doyle were obsessed with it, Doyle going on to spend years of his life in trying to prove it real.

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This is what i get for not having much historical education about society at the time. I just read these books for fun, but that explains why you run into so much seances, fairies, and spiritualism and such. good thing the authors are doing their research, because I didn’t! ;)

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