Sunday, October 17, 2010

Alternate History of the World Part 1


     The first altered history that we visit  this month was created by Mark Hodder who maintains the website Balkiana that celebrates the most written about detective in the english language, Sexton Blake.  Mr. Hodder (go and check his website here) is one hell of a good writer;  he a deft hand at creating involving, empathetic characters and settings with palpable atmosphere, bizarre and pulpy though it may be.  The Strange Affair is a great adventure yarn, but it is also a great exploration into convictions and obsessions of people in the time of Empire. 

     Mark dives into Sir Richard Francis Birtons 's story in medias res; we meet him on the night of his schedualed debate with his one time friend now rival explorer John Speke. Burton, already at  the Royal Geographic Society event, gets news of the accidental shooting of Speke and we see the man called Ruffian Dick weep for his one time friend and college. Burton is crushed by the news but soldiers on being at the gathering and does his best to inform his peers of his travels but succumbs none the less to his feelings. The Burton that Hodder shows us is one that feels deeply and acts with passion; he was a man of conviction. He struggles with his decisions and their possible outcomes; makes hard choices and lives with the consequences. 

Of the Burton in the novel a Monty Penniworth, a hansom cabbie Burton employs thinks:

           ...Burton didn't seem to belong to the other half; he was one of a kind. He acted like a gentleman but he'd the face of a brute. he was of the uppercrust but spoke to the cabbie like they were equals. he was famous but had no airs or graces.

Burton both in reality and in this novel was a man of the Empire but having live so little in his "homeland" he is more worldly, speaking twenty some-odd languages and had a personal set or mores sometimes at odds with his fellows.  

     Burton's friend come assistant Algernon Swineburne, poet and libertine, is a man like Burton also driven. He is driven not so much be deep conviction as Burton but by the need for experience having been sheltered from it by his family.  The character says of himself;

          " I'm a poet ! I need danger ! I need go tread the thin line twixt Life and death, else I have no experience worth writing about." and "... The ennui of the pointless existence gnaws at my bones ...  a man can only truly live with death as his  permanent companion"

We see the story in parts from his perspective, he is the more swashbuckling of the pair of protagonists and as many of the action scenes of the story are his as much as Burtons. He accounts himself well having never been a soldier and is the source of many of the novels better quips and quotes as fiery as his bright red mane.

     We get viewpoints by several of the secondary characters in the novel including those of one of the antagonists but to say who feel to much like a spoiler to me to let on.  Mark weaves in character versions of real historical figures as larger then life in the novel as they are large in British and World History.  I found it fun to see what he did with these great figures and he has a very dry humor when it comes to some of them.  He includes lesser known real people like Constable William Trounce, such a cool name and an equally cool character,  who in the real world caught a man who attempted to assassinate Victoria.  Like many fantasy tomes now Mark included an afterward that describes the real world people and figures he uses and alludes to.  

      Mark Hodder's world is one still in  the mid 1800's when the sun did not set on the British Empire, the cities of the isle were smog socked and soot covered.  The coal driven steam technology of the Engineers set make the world dirtier and noisier; the creations of the Eugenicists alter the animals and people in ways we thank god still cant. This Burton's england is one caught up with the drive for progress into the future both scientifically and philosophically.  
     There are well too many things good I can say about this steamopera as Michael Moorcock calls it in his blurb.  Mr. Moorcock a longtime favorite writer of mine says what came to my mine when reading the novel; 

"A great, increasingly complex plot, some fine characters, and invention that never flags."

go here to read the more of his comments and a summary of the book.  The physical book is a beautifully produced artifact of our times and is one of the reasons I hope that real print never goes away. Pyr did a great job on this novel and I for one can not wait to see its followup no matter which characters are in it.

    And the necessary legalese the copy that I read and reviewed was provided by Pry/Prometheus publishing....

    I will leave you with a quote I loved from late in the novel... it is from Richard Burton and says a lot about what he thinks of the concept of "empire" and I hope it is something the real Burton said:

     "it is in the British Empires interest to portray other cultures as barbarous and uncivilised; that way there's less outcry when we conquer them and steal their resources. Lies have to be propagated if we are to retain the high ground. "



  1. "it is in the British Empires interest to portray other cultures as barbarous and uncivilised; that way there's less outcry when we conquer them and steal their resources. Lies have to be propagated if we are to retain the high ground. "
    Burton never said it and, unfortunately, he probably never thought it either. I'm afraid it's all me!
    Thanks for a lovely review!
    Mark Hodder

  2. Thank you Mark for reading my thoughts on your novel I appreciate your response and I really did love the book. I look forward to more of your writing....