Now I openly admit that I am nOOb when it comes to steampunk novels although that is rapidly changing. I find that with each novel in the steampunk genre I pick up, the more intrigued and voraciously consuming of all things steampunk I become. I guess it started when I picked up my first Tim Powers novel and I haven’t looked back since. I read The Stress of Her Regard (and God knows it scared the hell out of me in a really good, creepy, what’s-that-behind-the-shower-curtain kind of way) and On Stranger Tides and even went on to pick up Pip Ballantine’s book about a dynamite-loving Eliza D. Braun and her sidekick Wellington “Welly” Books and piqued my taste for what I like in my steampunk books. I don’t like everything. I like a nice dose of creepiness, dread, a ton of mystery and an element of horror. Think an old Hammer Horror film… I am very picky. I guess it’s no surprise considering Powers and Blaylock have collaborated often. I’ve become a huge fan.
When I received The Aylesford Skull for review from Titan Books I couldn’t hardly wait for the package to come and honestly, I jumped as soon as I received it. I started reading it as soon as possible and by the time I’d finished the prologue, I’d had to pick my jaw up off the floor because it hits you like a ton of bricks. The Aylesford Skull is not overly gory, but it’s got enough gory parts for you to absolutely despise St. Ives’ arch-nemesis and the book’s main villain (there are others but they are minor players in comparison) Ignacio Narbondo.
Set in Victorian England during the summer of 1883, Langdon St. Ives tries desperately to get out of the detective game after a series of deadly explosions, mysterious deaths, and a strange attack in the sewers see him back at home in Aylesford facing off against his wife who is so over him risking his life. Narbondo has seemingly disappeared and everything seems fine, that is until Narbondo kidnaps little Eddie St. Ives in the middle of the night. St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro (sort of a butler) along with a crew of friends are hot on the chase in a bid to save Eddie after discovering just how deeply in danger he really is.
The awesome thing about the book is that there are several characters that end up being on the chase for either Narbondo or Eddie, so there is a bacchanalian carnival of errors and heroism in the book that keeps readers utterly engaged and hanging on every word. The fight scenes are well explained and the grimier streets of London where Narbondo is most comfortable are described in great detail.
Blaylock manages to blend steampunk and horror perfectly by not being cheesy. Narbondo’s big plan hinges on the anti-Irish rhetoric of one of his co-conspirators, ghosts, and black magic. Having discovered a way to spread gunpowder all over the city, Narbondo seeks to open a spiritual a gate that will prove extremely combustible and in effect, wreaking havoc. I’ve got to give it to Blaylock, he has created a truly hateful, cruel, wicked and despicably vile villain. Narbondo makes Moriarty look like a Boy Scout, he’s so evil. I hate to admit that I found Narbondo “charming” in parts but that charm is the same type of charm the a wolf would use when trying to get a lamb to come back to his lair in one of those old, cautionary tales from our childhood.
The ghostly/horror element in the book was enough to give me goosebumps and put the book down to gather my bearings. It was a kind of slow burn horror that served to add “spice” to the book.
St. Ives for the most part is a strong, intelligent character but I found that Narbondo always had the upper hand because he was open to things that are unseen. St. Ives’ second biggest battle in The Aylesford Skull is confronting his disbelief and coming to terms with the fact that not everything is he thought they seemed.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the book for you because it would be a crime. The Aylesford Skull is a highly enjoyable book that steampunk fans and non-fans alike can enjoy, especially on a lazy Spring day where you’re soaking up a little sun surrounded by the new blooms. Strong on mystery, horror, steampunk elements, and fantasy, you couldn’t ask for a better read.