Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The King's Agent

 The Curious Case of The Clockwork Man succeeds on multiple levels;  best of all getting more of his alternate history of Richard Burton and Algernon Swineburne as agents of the crown.  As the second novel in this projected trilogy he continues to build and expand on the world and characters he introduced and I think his writing has enough strength, detail and character to stand alone in addition to building on what came before. As with the initial penny dreadful mystery, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, the plot is built on a story, this time a scandal, of the era and again Mark is apologetically and entreatingly irreverent to historical figures including plenty of action and intrigue along the way. He also touches on the inequality of the era, the ugliness of the class differences and prejudice inherent in the system that some people have commented as overlooked in Steam era fiction.

The alternate world created by the choices and events in the first novel is one increasingly divergent from our own 1800’s but still recognizable as the era: 

     “The king’s agent swung along at a steady pace , with the hustle and bustle of the streets churning around him. Hawkers hollered, prostitutes wheedled and mocked, ragamuffins yelled, traders laughed and argued and haggled, street performers sang and juggled and danced, pedestrians brandished their canes and parasols and doffed their hats and bobbed their heads, horses clip-clopped, velocipedes hissed and chugged, steam horses growled and rumbled, carriages rattled, wheels crunched over cobbles, dogs barked. It was absolute cacophony. It was London. “

The efforts of the two polar forces of industrial change - the technologists and the eugenicists  are quickly remaking the world; it is a different industrial revolution from ours, not a better or cleaner one. We learn that a  conflict with Ireland was solved with a terrible eugenicist weapon to horrific effect,men are being replaced in their jobs by creations of one or the other modernizing force.  Tensions in the wider world are also touched on with references to the conflict in the americas and strained relations with the continent. 

In this adventure Richard Francis Burton agent of the crown with his assistant and poet Algernon Swinburne along with their colourful allies in Scotland Yard and several new guests are drawn into a robbery/conspiracy involving a brass clockwork man and a seemingly innocuous inheritance case that grows into a much bigger conflict, namely the Tichbone affair.  It was a real case involving the ninth richest estate of england and a lost heir; a highly improbable claimant arrives one with little if any resemblance to the lost son and becomes the center of a legal case that spawned real riots. In Hodder’s world altered by paradox, plots with plots and grotesque surgery this situation becomes a conflagration threatening to topple the status quo in the land. The various elements and plots come together seamlessly in the climax tangled up with stolen “mythical” gems, seances, haunting and a curse from the past and plots by forces on the edges of scientific possibility. Richard and his allies encounter madness, grotesques and monsters both human and less then in the corse of the case along with none too few encounters with faeries (re: Charles Altemont Doyle father of Sir Arthur C Doyle) .  

When reading Mark’s work it is often the little touches and quotes that stand out and he incorporates incidental characters that I really want more of. The appearance of near eastern sufi dervishes, substantial east indian  members of the police force, street merchants and Oscar Wilde as paperboy and psychics, and drunks artists and rakes; incidental characters sometimes with personality and presence in a much bigger picture. They all are there building a much bigger and though improbable believable world.
Through memories and dreams the novel expands on the north african travels of Burton and John Speke and builds more tension for the implied future confrontation. For readers uninitiated into the tale he gives new and yet still informative background to the rivalry between the one time friends and colleagues. Mark ads to the myth of their exploration of the Nile and the lakes of the region adding more mysteries in the deliriums of Richard’s struggle with malaria.   

It also reintroduces the inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunell, Nurse Nightengale and has a prolonged cameo by Charles Babbage. Looking at the handy biographies in the appendix you can get a few more clues as to what is happening, but it does not give away the best elements of the story.  There are visions of spirits, faeries, astral bodies, and the already shown Clockwork man, which becomes Burtons property and sparring partner.  There is many a fight in the novel and the one depicted on the cover is quite  gory and shocking involving much of the regular cast.  Hodder plays with the conventions of horror stories like the loss of control of ones self, “zombies” and maddness.  The riots of the real Tichbone affair happen here too but twisted out of proportion much like the claimant himself.
The Case takes Richard and Algy from the streets of London to the country estate of Tichbourne and back before luring Burton to visit Bedlam Hospital where we are treated to the horrors of how the mad were delt with.  

Like all good mystery/thriller stories things that are in the first scenes have effects in the climax; like all good hero tales the players begin in one state and change through the struggles of the tale. The Richard Burton that we start with who loses himself in drink and avoidance faces his percieved past failures and comes out a stronger man ready to face his unforeseen future and now unknown future. 

This time around Mark has a bigger cast of characters so we do not get near as much time with Algernon which is a shame because the masochistic poet was so fun in the first outing. He spends more time fleshing out the bobbies particularly DC Honest who was one of my favorite of the background cast of The Strange Affair…   There are so many intriguing side players like Trounce and the new additions like the rough sleeping  philosopher Herbert Spencer.  Spencer introduced during the chase scenes in the initial caper ecomes more and more a central part of the tale accompaning Burton and Swineburne to mix with the commoners at the Tichbone estate and much more.  Being a philosopher there are many times his words and thoughts are quoteable and applicable now as then:

 “The republican form of government is the highest blinking form, but, because of this it requires the highest form of human nature - a type nowhere present existin’ in London, that’s for bloomin certain”   -Spencer ( in reality Spence was the man who quoted the survival of the fittest that Darwin used later)    

I know there is a great amount of Victorian Steampunk/Steamopera out right now and I think there is a great uniqueness and strength to Hodder’s world to recommend it.  Back in November there were many bloggers talking about the proliferation of the sub-genre and its lack of recognizing the inequity and prejudice of the era and one of the uglier elements of the this novel. Mark handles this topic without commentary on most occasions and sometimes makes characters hard to like for me.    Again I will say that alternate history is one of my favorite tropes, reading fantasised versions of the past make my want to know the reality.. 

Pyr again has put together a package that is worth more then the 1600pennies that they ask for. The story is a b movie monster thriller based in history and the gorgeous cover is an event beautifully illustrated. There is so much I like about the novel I find it hard not to gush and not to give things away. (The image above does not do the cover justice)

There is so much foreshadowed for Richard and Algy and for the world. This world is a great playground for the imagination. I hope that there will be more then a trilogy here…. Maybe a western someday or an asian story in this place.  Mark Hodder gives what you might think is coming and surpasses expectations; he spurs my imagination and sense of wonder with his hints and I want more.

“I myself have argued that the spread of so called civilisation is little more then invasion and suppression, looting and enslavement…”-burton

You can find my review of The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack here.
Pry has a sample of the first novel up at their website here.
Blakiana Mark Hodder's website devoted to Sexton Blake can be found here.

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man came out this month... I received my copy from Pyr for review purposes. I would urge people to look for their local shops and order locally but....
You can find it online at;
and also available at the Pry Website here through the company via pay pal....


  1. Great writing! I want you to follow up to this topic!?!


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