Southern California - sunny days, blue skies, neighbours on flying bicycles ... ghostly submarines ... mermen off the Catalina coast ... and a vast underground sea stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Inland Empire where Chinese junks ply an illicit trade and enormous creatures from ages past still survive. It is a place of wonder ... and dark conspiracies.
A place rife with adventure - if one knows where to look for it. Two such seekers are the teenagers Jim Hastings and his friend, Giles Peach. Giles was born with a wonderful set of gills along his neck and insatiable appetite for reading. Drawing inspiration from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Giles is determined to build a Digging Leviathan. Will he reach the center of the earth? or destroy it in the process?
©2012 James P. Blaylock (P)2012 Audible Ltd
I'm the managing editor of the Fantasy Literature blog. Life's too short to read bad books!
3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
The Digging Leviathan is the first book in James P. Blaylock’s LANGDON ST. IVES/NARBONDO series. I’ve been reading these out of order, which doesn’t seem to matter. The books have some overlapping characters, settings, and/or concepts, but each stands alone. The Digging Leviathan features two teenage boys, Jim Hastings and Giles Peach, who are living on the coast of Southern California during the mid-20th century. Each is a dreamer and each has his own “issues” involving his father.
Jim lives with his uncle Edward St. Ives (who, I’m assuming, is a direct descendant of Langdon St. Ives, the eccentric Victorian scientist who stars in several of the books in this series) because Jim’s mother is dead and his father is insane. (Or is he?) Most of the time Jim’s father lives in a mental hospital, but when he manages to escape (a regular occurrence), he comes home until Dr. Hilario Frosticus (one of Dr. Narbondo’s incarnations, I presume) manages to find him and take him away again. While at home, Jim’s dad oversees animal experiments which he hopes will support his peculiar theories about evolution and civilization. He’s also trying to get a short story published in Analog.
Giles’ father, on the other hand, has been missing for years. Giles, who has webbed fingers and a set of gills on his neck, suspects that his dad turned into a fish and swam down a subterranean aquatic tunnel which leads to the center of the earth. Desperately trying to find his father, Giles is building a tunneling machine called The Digging Leviathan. Jim doesn’t believe Giles, of course. He thinks Giles gets his bizarre ideas from all the Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne novels he reads. But, strangely, other men are interested in Giles’ plans. Some hope to use Giles’ machine to discover the secret to immortality. Some are afraid that Giles will destroy the earth. Do they have some reason to believe that Giles is on to something?
What I’ve described is the essential plot of The Digging Leviathan, but readers who are familiar with James P. Blaylock won’t be surprised to be told that it doesn’t seem like this book was written for the main purpose of telling a story about tunneling to the center of the earth. Instead, Blaylock uses the plot as an excuse to entertain us with the antics of his quirky but loveable characters and, perhaps, to touch our hearts as we watch two boys longing for a “normal” relationship with their fathers.
Blaylock’s funniest character is Jim’s father who seems like (but maybe isn’t) a paranoid schizophrenic. He believes that his neighbor — a little old lady in curlers and a bathrobe — is conspiring against him with the gardener. He imagines that every night they hoist her dog over the fence so it can defecate in the Hastings’ yard. He also suspects that the man who drives the ice cream truck is a spy. In the backyard shed, Jim’s father attempts to breed mice and axolotls, hoping he can get the mice to devolve into an aquatic species. He dresses them in doll clothes to test his Civilization Theory. Mr. Hastings’ ideas are funny to consider and Blaylock gets to send escaped dressed-up axolotls running through some of his scenes. Hilarious!
Creating and entertaining us with his neurotic characters is what Blaylock does best. As if they’re in a Monty Python sketch, they’re constantly (and I’m taking these verbs right out of the story) dashing, springing, jumping, cursing, tripping, lurching, falling, stumbling, spying, sneaking, creeping, lurking, and peering in windows. Readers who love John Cleese’s brand of humor will probably be delighted with The Digging Leviathan (and the other LANGDON ST. IVES books). Readers who don’t, probably won’t. I do love Blaylock’s sense of humor, though I have to say that the silliness goes on a little too long in several scenes of The Digging Leviathan.
There’s more to The Digging Leviathan than the quirkiness I’ve described. The story is also about familial love. It was the loss of Jim’s mother that probably sent his father over the edge. The bond that Jim and his father still have, and Giles’ desire to find his own father, is sweet and poignant.
I listened to Audible Studio’s version of The Digging Leviathan. It’s 10.5 hours long and performed by Christopher Ragland, who obviously gets Blaylock’s brand of humor. I enjoyed his performance, and I thought it got better and better as it went on.
Swinging between cynical optimism and optimistic cynicism
There is something wonderful, and wonderfully refreshing, about Blaylock's stories. I've read them since I first discovered The Elfin Ship, and always feel this innate sense of happiness when I find another.
He may not be for everyone; few authors are. But try him with an open mind and a sense of humor. There are people, events ideas, and things in his stories that are completely absurd (part of the charm), but they are fit for their tasks within the context of the tale.
Blaylock is himself and no one else, but like a good wine there are hints of this and that story-telling forebear. Hope Mirrlees (Lud-in-the-Mist and things that float down river), John Bellairs (especially The Face in the Frost), James Thurber (his stories about his life more than his fairy tales), and Bradbury (for the child in every adult, and the adult growing in every child); and then there's Beagle, Grahame, some Twain. But his voice is unique. If you taste memories of another author, it springs from his being immersed, and reveling, in the experiences and memories that shaped him. His voice reminds me also of different honeys, that have shades of this or that flower from the neighborhood.
The reason I haven't described the story itself is that it would be a pointless endeavor. The plot is good, the characters charming, the stakes high. But reading too many plot descriptions is like watching too many trailers for a movie. After a while, you lose the ability to be surprised and carried along by unfolding events. So stop reading descriptions and pick up the genuine article itself.
As for those who had difficulty listening to the story, don't approach it with preconceived expectations of one more Steampunk clone (although this is one of the originals). He uses (invented) the genre tropes, but uses them in service of the characters, not as gosh-wow ends in themselves.
And you can't read him with your nose in the air and an ego inflated with pretense . He'll just deflate the latter and use it as a whoopee-cushion in a daring scheme sure to confound Dr. Frosticos or one of the Narbondos.
Lud-In-the-Mist, The Face in the Frost, The Thurber Carnival, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Wind in the Willows, A Fine and Private Place, among others
he gives each character an original flavor, with not just a distinctive voice, but their rhythms.
The story was all over the place and extremely hard to follow. There were occasional flashes or hints of something interesting, but they would inevitably be swamped by strange blathering! Unfortunately not worth the money or the effort...
The story was convoluted and seemed to wander without seeming to go anywhere. The narration was like listening to a bad old gangster movie. Don't wait your money.
This is the first time I stopped listening to any book I have purchased. I just couldn't stand listening to the narration any longer.
This was one of the more boring audiobooks I have purchased. I tried to like it, but I couldn't get more than 2 hours into the narration. I wasn't sure whether the author was attempting humor on purpose, but I did not find any of it funny. The characters were not interesting. Nothing much happened in two hours, and I had no reason to think it would get better if I could force myself to listen longer.
For the most part, the reader was OK. Perhaps I can't evaluate him fairly because I disliked the book so much, but some of the voices were as annoying as the book was boring.
Having just finished this book, I find myself unable to really give you much of a summary. It it a very odd book, which seems to be set in cold war era USA, following the journey of a mentally unstable man on his journey to the centre of the earth. Whether anything is actually happening, or is all imagined is still a mystery. Even though the narrator is pretty good, I found myself switching off while listening and even when I was paying attention, I was not really following. The ending is also rather abrupt, but I found myself almost glad that it had finished, so I didn't have to listen anymore.
We love coca cola right? I mean as a species, generally we do. Is it the sugar? the taste? the bubbles? Probably a combination of all those things. Well, this book is so full of prose - I mean SOOO full of prose, that the actual story is lost. I couldn't follow it, I didn't enjoy it and I laboured just to listen. Can I judge it fully - no. I could only listen entirely to the first part of the download, and that took determination.
What world were they living in? Who were the people? No introductions, just a lot of over cleaver assumptions that at some point you would just get it. It took too long and I was just fed up.
So why cola at the beginning? Because prose are great in a story when used to enhance something already special, like bubbles make a coke fizzy, but a coke they do not make. This story is all bubbles. If the flavour is there, and I'm sure it is, I couldn't taste it.
"I kept hoping it would go somewhere..."
I found this rather a chore to get through. There is little in the way of actual plot, rather just a lot of disconnected ideas and characters who don't have much to do. I found it an uneasy mixture of science fiction, pseudo-science and magic with little internal logic.
The story (such as it is) is hard to follow and shambles along in disjointed episodes finally ending up in an abrupt and underwhelming conclusion. Possibly the book is just setting up lots of questions which will be answered in the remaining books in this series. However, getting to the end of this book was quite a relief and didn't leave me with any desire to read the remaining novels.
The narration was good however.
"Very hard to follow"
I'm considering it, on the assurance of other reviewers that this is one of the less accessible books in the series.
Hard to say. I just found it hard to keep up with what was going on and found I didn't really care very much about the characters or the plot.
Not bad considering.
Mostly boredom. I usually love my audiobook sessions as I walk to work, but I had to force myself to keep going with this.
I really wanted to like this a lot more than I did.
"Very good narrator, slightly confusing story"
confusing, imaginative, vivid
The ending left me unsatisfied. Although, please use my review with caution, as I listened to this audiobook over the course of several weeks and that might have added to the slightly confusing impression.
I found the narrator to be amazing. He really managed to make every character unique and rememberable.
"Slow and tedious..."
I recently download the Aylesford Skull (book 4??) which I happened to enjoy, so I downloaded the additional books in the series. I believe this causes some of my confusion with the saga as a whole, and not to give too much away (and I'm aware there are another 2 books to catch up on) I'm still non-the-wiser over the key characters and period in time which this is set.
However, I struggled to finish this book. I found the concept interesting but the narration (a mix between Zapp Brannigan and the Godfather) distracting and eventually rather tedious.
I'm hoping the second book can restore my faith.
This is the first Blaylock book I read and I have to admit that I am mightily impressed! It's a full on romp from the get go and has wonderful characterisation. The narration is spot on and really brings it to life. If you are a steam punk fan this has to be a must.
"The Digging Leviathan: Narbondo, Book 1"
The positives about this author are that he has a brilliant imagination and sense of imagery and the world he has created was interesting. For these reasons I really wanted to like this series and persevered through the whole of the first book. I should also say that there are probably plenty of people who will disagree with my opinion. However, I simply can not get on with this author. The simple reason for this is poor characterization. The characters are wooden and unrealized and there is a disconnectedness between them, despite ties of family or friendship. This makes it hard to become interested in the book because as a reader, I found it hard to believe in the characters or their motivations and therefore became uninterested in the plot.
The narrator was not my taste, I use this phrase because he was not bad at his job and I wouldn't want to criticize unfairly. What I mean by this is that, in my opinion, he did not create the feeling of being in the middle of a play, instead of simply being read to, that you get with the best narrators.
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