Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Aylesford Skull - A Book Review

It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives, brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer, is at his home in Aylesford with his family. A few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay, the crew murdered and pitched overboard.

In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race into London in pursuit...

What I liked about it: To begin with, Mr. Blaylock is an extraordinary writer. This rollicking steampunk adventure showcases his excellent prose.  Likeable characters, a vile villain and an imaginative setting makes this book into a must-read for lovers of steampunk literature.

What I didn’t like about it:  The only issue I had with this charming tale is that the end dragged out a little bit too long. It seems that poor Eddie is kidnapped, and then someone swoops in and rescues him, but then they get caught. Then he’s rescued again, but then they get caught again. I believe this happened three times, and it had me suffering from some literary whiplash. It seemed like the climax of the thing took a long time to get to, I was really impatient to get the big fight started. Then finally, it seemed to me that it ended very abruptly. Perhaps from all the buildup.

In Conclusion: Would I recommend The Aylesford Skull to Steampunk readers? Absolutely, in fact, I would say it’s headed the way of the steampunk classic, in spite of the minor flaws I mentioned. I feel I should be adding more of Mr. Baylock’s works to my personal bookshelf, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the bookstore.

Rating:  7 out of 8 Octopus legs


  1. Because Blaylock is a talented writer, there were disappointments in his latest book, disappointing because a bit of careful editing and rewriting could have fixed them and made it a much stronger book.

    Firstly, the tone. Compared with his previous work, the book is much more gory. People are shot in the head, frothing blood bubbles out of slit throats, and the villain, Narbondo, is a true on-stage serial killer, ready to saw off children’s heads and turn their skulls into lanterns. The problem is that the heroes haven’t kept pace with the villains. The heroes are still, as in Blaylock’s lighter stories, fooling around and not really taking things seriously, as though an editor demanded more blood in the villainy but not in the heroes.

    Which leads us to the second major problem, the characters. Over and over again the heroes treat the horrific dangers of the story with a lazy, almost idiotic casualness. Narbondo tries to poison the entire St Ives family; do Mr and Mrs St Ives take precautions? No, they just have a merry time sleeping in and thinking about using an elephant to open their barn door. Result? Their son is kidnapped by the psychopath that they knew was trying to harm their family. This is nothing but sloppy writing, because the kidnapping could have been written to occur despite precautions. Instead, the reader gets the feeling that the St Iveses are nitwits, a feeling that is not altered by their next reactions. Do they contact police (as Mrs St Ives had been telling her husband he should have done in the earlier case of a bombing in London)? No. Does St Ives take the train, or even his reasonably fast carriage, to Narbondo’s lair in London? No, he takes the slowest transport available, a wagon, and not content with that he stops at an inn for a beer, and picks up six more, and some pasties for the road. Meanwhile, Mrs St Ives reacts to her son’s kidnap by a murderer by taking her daughter and the housekeeper newt-hunting, picnicking, and out for dinner in town, with no real sign that she is anxious or terrified for her son.

    Mrs St Ives vanishes from the story until later, when she promptly drops her (briefly freed) son carelessly back into the hands of his kidnappers. Mr St Ives spends what seems like hundreds of pages eating instead of saving his son. Along with his cronies, he has four-course meals in pubs, before getting around to foiling evil. By page 321, certain that Narbondo plans to kill and decapitate his son, St Ives is not pacing, obsessively loading his gun, or even getting testy. He’s sitting on a beach eating muffins and strawberries with tea, waiting for his friends, thinking about the cook and all of the food she’s brought to the beachside camp. When they arrive, do they set off immediately? No, they sit down to eat fish cooked in wine, lamb ragout (“redolent with cloves and allspice and cinnamon”), and beer.

    When little Eddie is rekidnapped back to London, and St Ives (instead of going rapidly by train like his friends) decides to go 2 hours out of his way to get his experimental blimp that he has never even tested properly, the reader is left with a feeling that Eddie would be best put up for adoption, since his parents are so inept. And, my God, yes, not only does St Ives waste time with the airship, he pauses to load a crate of “sandwiches and other delicacies” aboard. Remember, we’re not talking an expedition to the Andes here – it’s a matter of hours, when every second counts for saving his son’s life.

    Of all the characters, only Finn and Kraken are of any real use, mainly because instead of sitting around eating and blathering, they actually go and save Eddie. Succeeding in the end by complete luck, the St Iveses themselves deserve a good slap in the face for being complete fools, and should thank their stars they’re lucky enough to have a servant and a friend like Finn and Kraken.

    1. Haha, I DO agree with you about the eating part. They spend a LOT of time eating.