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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Strange Affair
of Spring Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder

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To purchase The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Title: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
Author: Mark Hodder
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 364 pages
Availability: The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - US
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - UK
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - Canada
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack - India
L'Étrange affaire de Spring Heeled Jack - France
Der kuriose Fall des Spring Heeled Jack - Deutschland
  • A Burton & Swinburne Adventure - I

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Our Assessment:

B : quite entertaining Victorian steampunk

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Washington Post . 21/10/2010 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mark Hodder's The Strange Case of Spring Heeled Jack is apparently the first of a series of adventures involving Burton and Swinburne. As fantasy, the novel doesn't really break new ground (.....) But if you're looking for a cold night's entertainment, this high-spirited mix of fact and fancy will do quite nicely, quite nicely indeed." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack begins with the great nineteenth century explorer and linguist Richard Francis Burton set to debate fellow explorer John Hanning Speke -- and learning that Speke has been shot. The fact that it is 1861, not 1864 -- the year the debate was actually scheduled, and when Speke died -- is only the first of many indications that the world of this novel isn't quite the one we're familiar with, despite the many famous figures from that period populating it. No, it turns out this is not the Victorian age ("What the hell is a Victorian ?" Burton asks when he is accused of being one), and not quite nineteenth century England as we know it.
       Hodder nicely introduces this slightly altered reality, beginning with a world that seems just like 1860s London (and the backstory of Burton and Speke's Africa adventures) and then bit by bit revealing anachronisms: an 'atmospheric' train service (to go along with the traditional kind); 'velocipedes', "steam-driven, one-man vehicles" (i.e. essentially motorcycles); message delivery systems utilizing bred-for-the-purpose animals -- dogs and parrots. Several factions have also emerged in this society: the scientific-advancement-focused Technologist caste, with two main branches: Engineers and Eugenicists; and Libertines which include the Luddite Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Rakes, who tend more towards black magic and sexual depravity.
       Burton is drawn into this by the government, commissioned by the king, the prime minister explaining why he's the man for the job:

We live in tumultuous times, Burton. The Technologists are pushing ethical boundaries and the Libertines are pushing moral boundaries. Both castes are too powerful and both have extremist factions. The palace is concerned that science is altering our culture too much and too fast and without proper periods of reflection and consultation. For the good of the Empire, we require someone who can unveil secrets and make snap judgements; someone fearless and independent; someone like you.
       Among the problems plaguing London: a kind of werewolf-species -- wolf-men, also called loups-garous -- who seem to be kidnapping young chimney sweeps (and which apparently are prone to spontaneous combustion ...), and a mysterious and very elusive figure who leaps about on stilts of sorts -- Spring Heeled Jack himself -- who is attacking teenage girls.
       Hodder piles on the mysterious creatures and events, with Burton brought face to face with Spring Heeled Jack soon enough, but none the wiser for quite a while. As one policeman investigating the case notes: "This business presents one confounded puzzle after another !"
       Diverging from history again, Burton forsakes beloved Isabel here (whereas in actual fact they were married in 1861), concerned that his newfound duties will put her in danger (but that's a trade-off he's willing to make when the alternative is a posting as consul at the backwater of all backwaters, Fernando Po, in Equatorial Guinea ...). But he does get himself a sidekick to help with his investigations: his good friend, the diminutive young poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Hodder does play Swinburne's appreciation of a good flogging a bit too hard and rough, but the poet is a decent counterpart to Burton and they make an amusing and quite good team. (Swinburne's small size also proves handy on a number of occasions.)
       Aside from the engineering advances in this world, the Eugenicists -- including Francis Galton, Florence Nightingale, and Charles Darwin -- have been meddling with breeding and transplant programs of various sorts, which has resulted in such creatures as the wolf-men -- though there's are a few other variations too. One of the problems they've encountered, however:
In every case but one, where we've raised an animal up to a human level of evolution, spontaneous combustion has sooner or later destroyed the beast.
       This sort of arbitrary consequence is among the weaknesses of Hodder's imagined world: there's no explanation whatsoever for it, and given how bizarre the idea is (what on earth would cause the animals to burst into flames ?) it undermines the otherwise at least generally more realistic state-of-the-world. (A lot of the technological advances may not stand up to closer engineering scrutiny, but there's a basic plausibility to them -- unlike spontaneous combustion of life-forms.)
       It doesn't come as much of a surprise that there's a time-travel element to the book too, given all this alternate-timeline history, or that Spring Heeled Jack is at the center of that. Near the end his story is finally laid out, start to finish, at last making clear many of the odd events and sightings that took place over the years (and going considerably further, too). And, yes, as one person observes: "This time-travel business seems excessively complicated"
       The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack offers enjoyable adventure, helped by the fact that Richard Burton is such a great figure, and Hodder managing to utilize him and his many talents and backstory quite well. Hodder does lay it on a bit thick with the historical figures -- a young newsboy Oscar Wilde just one example of maybe trying a bit too hard to stuff as many in as possible -- and the other main one, Swinburne, is perhaps too much of a (would-be) comic foil; in fact, many of the more successful characters are the ones who aren't historical and whom Burton deals with or encounters in his investigations.
       Presumably, too, the novel has to be seen as part of a larger project -- as indeed there are now two trilogies worth of Burton and Swinburne adventures -- and as such this seems a good introductory volume, setting the stage busily but quite well. Certainly, Hodder seems to have thought through his alternate-world -- and where (and, more importantly, when) to place it -- well, and it bodes well for what is to follow.
       The writing is a bit uneven -- the dialogue jars occasionally -- and the novel proceeds a bit rough-and-tumble, but it is decent steampunk entertainment, offering an entertaining alternate (not-)Victorian world -- and one can see why adventure-seeking Burton might prefer this one to the 'real' one (as he suggests he does).

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2016

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The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack: Reviews: Mark Hodder: The Burton & Swinburne Adventures under review:
  1. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
  2. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Mark Hodder was born in 1962.

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© 2016 the complete review

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