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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" by Mark Hodder (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Mark Hodder Website
Order The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man HERE
Read FBC Review of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

INTRODUCTION/OVERVIEW: "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" is the second volume of a series that takes place in an alt-history England of the early 1860's with a steampunk flavor and features the colorful Victorian era personality, (Sir) Richard Burton as the main hero. In a distinctive turn from "real history", Burton accepts a commission to become a "special agent" of the king - among other changes Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840 - while his young friend Algernon Swinburne is his sidekick; many notables like Darwin, Brunel and a very young Oscar Wilde have cameos and in this installment quite a lot of new faces are added of which I will mention only Herbert Spencer who is now a philosopher down on his luck and reduced to begging until he hooks up with Burton and Swinburne.

The blurb below gives a good idea of what the novel is about without being spoilery though I will only add that "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" contains considerably more than hinted there. As structure, the book is only partly self-contained in the sense that while it definitely solves its main thread and fleshes out a very consistent view of the imaginative universe of the author, it also ends on a clear to be continued note.

"Time has been altered, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, the king's agent, is one of the few people who know that the world is now careening along a very different course from that which Destiny intended.

When a clockwork-powered man of brass is found abandoned in Trafalgar Square, Burton and his assistant, the wayward poet Algernon Swinburne, find themselves on the trail of the stolen Garnier Collection—black diamonds rumored to be fragments of the Lemurian Eye of Naga, a meteorite that fell to Earth in prehistoric times.

His investigation leads to involvement with the media sensation of the age: the Tichborne Claimant, a man who insists that he's the long lost heir to the cursed Tichborne estate. Monstrous, bloated, and monosyllabic, he's not the aristocratic Sir Roger Tichborne known to everyone, yet the working classes come out in force to support him. They are soon rioting through the streets of London, as mysterious steam wraiths incite all-out class warfare..."

ANALYSIS: "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" continues and expands on the The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack story with which the author debuted; in a quite changed world of 1862, Sir Francis Burton now king's investigator and his assistant Algernon Swinburne, plus a motley cast including beggar/philosopher Herbert Spencer, various policemen and special agents of the Crown have to deal with new threats to "life as we know it" different from the events in the first volume, but related in subtle ways .

Starting innocuously with a robbery, a chase and some interesting events, followed by an excursion into the seemingly supernatural when Burton is drawn into the investigation of a missing aristocrat supposed return, the novel explodes into full sf action in the last part ending on a great note that promises a lot to come.

As opposed to The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack which lacked balance for a good while, not knowing if it wanted to be Victoriana with grime and social commentary or steampunk adventure in which the action takes precedence, while seesawing between narrative modes and breaking the storytelling flow often, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man is coherent and the author manages the transitions between narrative phases much better.

The Victoriana aspect of grime and social commentary is still there, but the steampunk adventure takes over in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and that suits the series well. There is still a bit of disconnect in the middle when the story jumps a little in time, jump that is quite abrupt breaking the flow of the story and the book reads almost like two episodes in a larger story, or maybe one episode and then its connection to the bigger picture.

The other main niggle of the series so far for me is that the main lead, Richard Burton is still a bit on the wooden side. He is not quite the stock action hero since his main character traits: middle aged "personality" with a storied though controversial past, a present in the thick in the action and somewhat troubled spirit combine to a complex image but the author does not quite pull the final step of fully humanizing him. Comparisons with two other similar characters from ultra-favorite series - Ian Cormac of Neal Asher's Polity and Stenwold Maker of Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt - show that as series evolve there is clear scope for that and I hope we will see a "complete" Burton in the next installment.

This being said, "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" (A+, highly recommended) is an excellent book that almost fulfills the huge promise this series had for me when it was announced. There are the many "goodies" of which I mentioned some above, but you really need to read it for full appreciation. The author also expands considerably the universe of the series in terms of the "big picture" which is another huge plus and the mixture of sf and steampunk continues to work well in terms of coherence and suspension of disbelief.

I would like to mention that you can read "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" on its own since all the necessary backstory is skilfully inserted in the beginning and the series debut was a standalone in many ways. On the other hand this book clearly starts delving seriously into the big picture especially in the second half and with a little improvement in the structure and a more "humane" Burton, I see the next installment taking the series to the top-top A++ level of todays' sff since it sure has the potential for that.

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