the Little Red Reviewer

The Aylesford Skull, by James P. Blaylock

Posted on: February 7, 2013

Ayelsford Skull Main 2_1.jpg.size-230The Aylesford Skull, by James P. Blaylock

published January 2013

where I got it: purchased new













Langdon St. Ives had plans.  Those plans involved spending as much time as possible in the country, enjoying the company of his wife, and raising his children in peace. His most recent case ended badly, and St. Ives needs time to reassess, to recover, to figure out what went wrong.

So much for having plans.

In short order, a grave robberry is discovered near his country home, a woman is murdered, his wife is nearly poisoned, and his son Eddie is kidnapped. All these crimes were perpetrated by Dr. Narbondo, with whom St. Ives has had previous dealings. The Aylesford Skull is just the most recent in Blaylock’s Langdon St Ives adventures, but thanks to some concise yet very well presented character introductions, the readers knows everything they need to know to enjoy the story without having read previous tales involving Professor St. Ives.

Narbondo didn’t just dig up a random grave, he chose one involving a particularly horrid family secret, and took the skull of the child’s corpse.  Using tiny machinery and photos of the deceased, Narbondo makes creeptastic ghost trapping lamps out of the skulls he has stolen over the years.  It’s believed his final goal is to open a pathway between the world of the living and that of the dead.

And that’s the just the beginning! Once the action gets started in this steampunk thriller, it doesn’t stop! While St. Ives and his trusted friends set out to rescue Eddie, the medium Mother Laswell endeavors to save the soul of her own son, and even side characters have their own missions and goals. From the tunnels and alehouses of London to the marshes and rivers of the surrounding countryside, Blaylock whisks the reader along through an all immersive and atmospheric adventure.

My favorite parts of The Ayeslford Skull has to be Blaylock’s style of worldbuilding and his characterization.  Everytime I opened this book I could hear the rustle of wind through the trees, I could smell the rivers, I could feel the cobblestones under my feet.  Characterization is also for the most part (more on that later) top notch, and it felt like everyone had a life outside this momentary adventure, a family and hobbies to return to after the end of the book. Even the villains, Narbondo and the perverse Crumpet, among others, are more than your average cookie cutter bad guys, and Blaylock takes advantage of the politics of the time to let his villians run wild and get away with murders and bombings. How I’d love to read the novel of Narbondo’s youth, and learn exactly how he became such a twisted and demented creature.

Funnily enough, I found Langdon St. Ives himself to be the least developed character, although I suspect Blaylock gives him far more depth in earlier installments of this loosely related series, and thus spent more time on characters that hadn’t been in the spotlight before.

Blaylock keeps the steampunk style pretty subtle as well.  You know how some steampunk novels are more about the fashion, gadgets, brass, and goggles, than the substance of the story? This isn’t that steampunk.  This is rock solid story telling in Victorian England, with some airships and specialized pistols thrown in for good measure.  The plot is so fast paced it’s amazing he’s able to cram in as many details as there are.  This doesn’t at all feel like a 400 page book.

As much as I appreciated Blaylock’s ability to transport me to another time and place,  I found myself very frustrated by the method in which the mystery unfolds.  A few other reviewers have mentioned The Aylesford Skull has a Sherlock Holmes feeling to it, and I can’t say one way or another, as I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  If Arthur Conan Doyle’s style was to provide the reader with every hint needed to solve the mystery before the characters, then yes, this is similar to a Sherlock Holmes story.  Perhaps the foreshadowing was too overdone, perhaps there were too many Chekhov’s guns sitting around, but I was able to put the pieces together long before the end of the book, making the climax of the book not much of a surprise and making the supposedly brilliantly genius characters look a little dim.  I do love to guess the ending of the story, but guessing correctly wrecks the fun.  A very rushed feeling final scene only added to my annoyances.

If you enjoy Steampunk adventure, chances are you will like The Aylesford Skull. I suspect many readers will get so much enjoyment out of the characters and the heady adventure that they may not mind the predictable plot.  Even with my frustrations, I’d pick up another Blaylock, and I’d certainly read more of his St Ives stories.


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7 Responses to "The Aylesford Skull, by James P. Blaylock"

Glad to see you enjoyed this one!


Totally agree. I loved every piece of this book, except the rushed, predictable ending. Blaylock gave us wonderful characters, intricate plot, full-bodied world building, and then this piddly little ending. Still, I would pick up another St. Ives mystery.


Great review. My finger has hovered over the “buy” button on this one many times. Now I will be getting it.


I hate rushed endings. It’s one of my proper bugbears and I’m not even going to get the soap box out here or this will become a rant!
Yes, I think you’ve hit Arthur Conan Doyle’s style on the head, but, and it could just be that I’m a raging dunce, as even though ACD gives plenty of clues I never managed to quite put them together – even though, like Watson, I was desperately trying to!
Argh, rushed endings….
Lynn :D


I have this one but have yet to read it, though I’ve truly loved the other Langdon St. Ives adventures that I have read. I strongly recommend Blaylock as one of *the* authors to try it a person wants to experience good steam punk. The steam punk aesthetic is woven so well into his stories. The stories are not about those trappings, like so many seem to be, and so his world building does shine. I’m thrilled they are re-releasing some of his older St. Ives stuff in similar format with matching covers, etc. as it is work well worth reading.


This is on my to-read pile. I do like Sherlock Holmes, so hopefully I will enjoy it!


Oooh, I may have to give this one a try. Steampunk is one of those genres that’s been hit or miss for me, but this one looks fantastic! :D


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