No one does Steampunk the way that James P. Blaylock does. He hasn’t forgotten how to have fun with the “science” part of the science fiction, and really captures the inventiveness and bald curiosity of Victorian scientists. Modern villains are not nearly as ostentatiously evil and unsympathetic as Narbondo, and it’s refreshing to have an unabashedly “Bad Guy” to root against. The Langdon St. Ives stories are quite frankly classic science fiction literature that every steampunk fan should read, ESPECIALLY the hilarious short story, “The Ape-Box Affair.” After almost two decades since the last full length novel, The Aylesford Skull is the newest addition to the St. Ives collection, and it will be a good introduction for newcomers as well as a sure crowd pleaser for established Blaylock fans.
The story itself is action-packed and complex in the best way that a novel can be. As usual, Blaylock’s storytelling style is vast, weaving multiple plots and a full cast of characters who don’t exactly communicate with each other even when they’re trying to accomplish the same goal. This, of course, results in chaos and confusion when multiple parties attempt to rescue the kidnapped Edward St. Ives from his father’s dastardly arch-nemesis, Narbondo. While James P. Blaylock’s Steampunk has an irrepressible whimsicality, I definitely think that the tone is more mature in The Aylesford Skull. Perhaps it’s because this storyline strikes closer to home, dealing with Narbondo’s unhappy family and childhood, but this time around our hunchbacked villain seemed much quicker to violence, and more ruthless than ever. It’s also clearer that in becoming a family man Langdon St. Ives’s priorities have shifted from the his younger days as an unattached adventurer. In the past, our hero and his friends were content with merely stopping Narbondo’s plots, but increasingly since the events in Lord Kelvin’s Machine, St. Ives’s goal is to see his enemy dead and gone. While he’s still very much interested in science and inventing, the appeal of adventuring has begun to lose its shine when it means sacrificing time with his family. I think these changes in priority are a good thing for character development. The discussion between St. Ives and his wife about continuing his “heroics” was particularly poignant, (especially when their son is kidnapped soon after!) and I looking forward to seeing how this theme continues to develop in future Langdon St. Ives stories.
Another interesting change in The Aylesford Skull was the inclusion of overtly supernatural elements. While Blaylock has always written fantastical steampunk stories, the ghostly images emanating from the skull confused and frightened scientifically minded Langdon St. Ives— a man who has encountered aliens and zombies! I’m a fan of supernatural steampunk, and I particularly liked how Blaylock addressed it in this book—without much by way of direct explanation, readers experience the mystery just as much as the characters do. If future St. Ives stories are going to contain more supernatural elements, I hope that they are handled as deftly as they were here in The Aylesford Skull.
As one of the pioneers of the Steampunk movement, James P. Blaylock’s contribution to science fiction literature had been invaluable. The Aylesford Skull was an engaging read and a welcome addition to the Langdon St. Ives universe. Definitely check it out!