Review: The Aylesford Skull / Author: James P. Blaylock / Publisher: Titan Books / Release Date: January 25th
If you know anything about James P. Blaylock, you'll probably recall that he was one of the founding fathers of Steampunk, along with fellow Californians K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers. Not a lot of folks have read his books, though, of which his whimsical, humorous hollow earth fantasy The Digging Leviathan is perhaps the best example.
Well, you can't blame a guy for trying to cash in on his rep, and that's more or less what Blaylock is doing with The Aylesford Skull – a twisty-turny, Victorian-set adventure with lots of kidnappings, chases, waylayings, explosions and violent melées. The mandatory steampunk trimmings are present (mechanical launches, airships, weird contraptions for contacting the spirit world), but have been dropped onto what almost feels like an old-fashioned Dennis Wheatley occult thriller, with a resourceful and well-heeled hero (not quite the Duc de Richelieu but almost) and his doughty and loyal-to-the-point-of-death colleagues (not quite Rex van Ryn but almost) taking on a malevolent hunchback in a swirling cape who is such a total nasty-chops even his own mum tries to pepper him with bullet holes.
A bit more subtlety and spark in the characterization, and this could have been a decent, rip-roaring yarn. But as it is, The Aylesford Skull feels somewhat lifeless and, er, hollow, especially when you compare it to fellow FF of S Tim Power's recent outing, the wonderfully Gothic Hide Me Among the Graves.