"Does the night seem uncommonly full of dead men and severed heads to you?"
Langdon St. Ives is a man of science and a member of the Royal So..Show More »ciety. With the help of his dependable and discreet manservant, St. Ives prefers to spend his time secretly building a spaceship in his countryside silo. But currently he???s in London to help his friend Jack Owlesby recover a wooden box containing the huge emerald Jack???s father left him for an inheritance. Things get confusing when it???s discovered that there are several of these boxes that all look the same and all contain something somebody wants. Soon St. Ives, Jack, and a host of other friends and enemies become embroiled in a madcap adventure featuring a toymaker and his lovely daughter, a captain with a smokable peg leg, the scientists of the Royal Society, an evil millionaire, a dirigible steered by a skeleton, a tiny little man in a jar who may be an alien, a cult evangelist who wants to bring his mother back to life, a love-spurned alchemist who keeps trying home remedies to cure his acne, and a lot of carp and zombies.
As you may have guessed, Homunculus is zany and completely over-the-top in the right kind of way. The villains are meant to be caricatures ??? one of them is hunchbacked and another sneakily lurches around England with his head wrapped in unraveling bandages. They do stupid things such as leaving the curtains open while animating corpses for the evangelist to claim as converts, and tip-toeing up dark staircases carrying bombs with lit fuses. Blaylock???s bizarre but deadpan humor, in the absurdist British style (though Blaylock is American), was my favorite part of the novel. Even though Homunculus is packed with action and very funny when it???s in its farcical mode, the pace sometimes lags and the shallow characters can???t make up for it when that happens. Fortunately, that???s not often. The final scene is a screwball melee as all the heroes and villains, and thousands of London???s citizens, turn out to witness the story???s climax.
Nigel Carrington was a brilliant choice for narrator. There are a lot of similar characters in Homunculus, but Mr. Carrington made them distinguishable. He also hit exactly the right tone with the humor which ranged from deadpan to black comedy to zany farce. On my website, I've specifically recommended the audio version of Homunculus just because Nigel Carrington???s performance was a large factor in my enjoyment of the book.
If you???re in the mood for a surreal British comedy in the vein of Monty Python or Fawlty Towers, James P. Blaylock???s Homunculus will fit the bill nicely. Published in 1986, this is one of the earlier steampunk novels. In fact, Blaylock, along with friends K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, all of whom studied with Philip K. Dick, are considered fathers of modern steampunk, and it was Jeter who coined the term to describe their work.
3.5 stars. Originally posted at Fantasy Literature.
James P. Blaylock returns to Victorian England in another steampunk adventure with scient..Show More »ist Langdon St. Ives and his nemesis, Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. Lord Kelvin’s Machine contains three related stories which each feature a fictional infernal device created by inventor Lord Kelvin. I listened to the excellent audio version which was produced by Audible Studios, is just over 8 hours long, and is narrated by Nigel Carrington.
In the prologue of Lord Kelvin’s Machine, Dr. Narbondo murders Langdon St. Ives’ beloved wife Alice which throws St. Ives into a funk. Part 1, titled “In the Days of the Comet” begins a year later. St. Ives has been depressed since Alice died and wonders if he’s bound for the madhouse like his father. Then he hears that Narbondo has hatched another devious plan which involves a comet that is coming toward Earth. Narbondo thinks he has a way to propel the entire Earth so that it will intersect the comet’s path and be destroyed. To do this, he must use a device created by Lord Kelvin which will reverse the polarity of the Earth. (Obviously this is absurd, but that’s part of what makes Blaylock’s stories so much fun.) Using some clever manipulations and some biscuit crumbs, St. Ives and his friends are able to foil Narbondo’s dastardly plot. At the end, Narbondo dies … temporarily.
The second story, “The Downed Ships,” is narrated in first person by Jack Owlesby, a friend and great admirer of St. Ives, who witnesses the explosion of a paper company’s warehouse. It seems a little too coincidental that the paper company shares a wall with the Royal Academy museum which is currently housing one of Lord Kelvin’s machines. Something is afoot and it seems to involve a rubber elephant, an ice house, an American sailor, a sadistic boy, a fruit basket, a bomb, and a carp. There’s also alchemy, vivisection, and necromancy. In the end, it turns out that Narbondo wasn’t quite as dead as had been hoped.
Jack Owlesby is a charming character with a wonderful voice, and Nigel Carrington performs him perfectly, which is why I enjoyed this section so much:
"That was it — the difference between us. He was a man with destinations; it was that which confounded me. I rarely had one, unless it was some trivial momentary destination — the pub, say … At the moment, though, both of us slipped along through the fog, and suddenly I was a conspirator again. A destination had been provided for me. I wished that Dorothy could see me, bound on this dangerous mission, slouching through the shadowy fog to save St. Ives from the most desperate criminals imaginable. I tripped over a curb and sprawled on my face in the grass of the square, but was up immediately, giving the treacherous curb a hard look and glancing around like a fool to see if anyone had been a witness to my ignominious tumble."
In the final section of the book, “The Time Traveler,” Langdon has managed to steal Lord Kelvin’s machine from the Royal Academy. He plans to use it to travel back in time to prevent his wife’s death. What follows is another madcap steampunk adventure, but this one is full of time paradoxes. I thought it was amusing in a preposterous way, but readers who hate these types of stories (I understand there are some) will probably not enjoy it as much as I did. You’ve really got to suspend disbelief for this one.
Lord Kelvin’s Machine is one of the more entertaining LANGDON ST. IVES adventures and it’s a fine place for new readers to start. I recommend the audio version because Carrington’s upper crust British accent adds to the experience.
James P. Blaylock is most famous for being a protégé of Philip K. Dick and, along with his friends K..Show More ».W. Jeter and Tim Powers, developing the steampunk genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s. Blaylock’s most popular steampunk stories take place in Victorian England and feature gentleman inventor Langdon St. Ives and his archnemesis Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, a hunch-backed necromancer. The Aylesford Skull is considered to be the seventh installment of THE NARBONDO SERIES, though each of the LANGDON ST. IVES novels can stand alone.
In The Aylesford Skull, Langdon St. Ives seems to be considering retirement. He and his wife (Alice) and their two small children (Eddie and Cleo) have moved to the country to lead a quiet life. Langdon continues to work on his hobby — building a functioning airship in his barn. Currently he’s trying to figure out how to roll back the roof of the barn so the airship can get out. He’s thinking about acquiring an elephant to provide the pulling power. Meanwhile Alice is fishing for the huge pike that lives in the stream behind their house so she can stuff it. (Are there always fish in Blaylock’s novels? I’m not sure.)
But the peace doesn’t last long. Narbondo’s mother (he has a mother?!) lives up the hill. When she asks St. Ives to help her destroy her son, at first he refuses. But then he discovers that Narbondo has been using a child’s skull to conjure up ghosts. When Narbondo kidnaps Eddie, St. Ives decides to act. He recruits his gentlemen friends from the Royal Academy and off they go to London on a manhunt. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was in town to meet with his publisher, accompanies them. The gentlemen don’t know it yet, but they will also be joined by a few more characters including Alice, Narbondo’s mom, a fortune-teller, and the gardener.
In London they uncover a nefarious plot that involves ghosts, skulls, anarchists, a pipe organ, and a portal to Hell. The plot is zany and chaotic as the characters run around chasing each other all over and underneath London, stopping only for the scientists to dine and for the dastardly villains to monologue. There are plenty of chases, gunshots, and explosions. And, of course, an airship goes up in flames.
I expect that the likelihood of any particular reader enjoying The Aylesford Skull will depend on how well they appreciate Blaylock’s extremely subtle and absurd sense of humor. If it doesn’t amuse you to think of using elephants to solve engineering problems, or to witness a group of gentlemen scientists from the Royal Academy camping in the woods (it’s extremely civilized camping), or to watch them running around London while buildings explode, then you might not find this story entertaining. There are nice period details and dialogue, but the story is slow moving at times (the book’s a bit too long), several of the characters are shallow, and it’s not blatantly funny. Those who are already familiar with Blaylock’s sense of humor and know they enjoy it will surely be entertained by The Aylesford Skull. Those who are unfamiliar with this father of steampunk should certainly give Blaylock a try.
I listened to William Gaminara’s narration of The Aylesford Skull. It’s 12 hours long and produced by Audible Studios. Gaminara does a very nice job with this story and I enjoyed his performance.