The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack / The Strain / Furies of Calderon (3 for 1!)

Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack should have been a brilliant, rollicking read.  The plot has such promise; a Victorian era of technological advancement of the sort that has led to coal-powered penny farthings, talking orang-utans and the development of anti-tech groups such as the Libertines.  I was all ready to read it and love it; Sir Richard Burton (he of Kama Sutra fame, a brilliant Victorian figure), tons of steampunk finery, Spring-Heeled Jack and a good dose of action funtimes.

Well, it was a fun read.  It’s a solid 3* effort.  I did enjoy it, even though at certain times when it became cumbersome I’d put the book down and wonder why I was reading it at all.  Any section featuring Burton felt laboured and unconvincing – a big problem I find in works in which the author is too much in awe of his main character is that people “feel” how great a man he is, and it happens in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack several times.  It’s trying.  Burton was a wonderful figure in history but he doesn’t feel as real as most of the lesser characters in the book simply because he’s Too Awesome.  We get to read about his past exploits, he gets to do a bit of Victorian James Bond-ing, but it feels hollow.  Even Swinburne, who is mostly identified by being eager, red-headed and a persistent giggler, feels more realistic than Burton.

I kept reading mostly because I was interested in Hodder’s Spring-Heeled Jack, and in that I was not let down.  It was a thoroughly over-the-top story in the final third, but for all the silliness of the villains (which was really quite ridiculous), I did enjoy it and I did not regret finishing it.  I was relieved that I had nothing else to work my way through – we don’t need to know how everything in a steampunk universe is built! – but it was fun, and I wish I’d had it with me on holiday because it’s a perfectly pitched holiday read.  Snow Books, the publishers, need to double-check their editing though as there were several typos and grammatical errors.

Another book with a similar pacing problem is Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain.  I almost put it down twice in the first forty or so pages because it was another book that linterrupted its flow with descriptions of technology where the reader didn’t need to know; too much detail, putting paid to some much-needed tension.  I got a little bit bored.  I was very glad I kept going with it though!
A plane lands dark at JFK airport.  Sinister things occur, linking a Holocaust survivor with the doctor who inspects those aboard the curiously silent plane, and pretty soon it’s clear things will not be ending well for anyone – least of all, the passengers.  The beginning is a clear homage to Dracula, one of my all-time favourite books, and were it not for the pacing problems I would have been delighted.  A tale of a horror deep in the woods of central Europe is brought to NYC, to the new world, and it is good to see some more modern vampire tales based on some of the older vampiric traditions.  One thing I must add is that it’s a strange mix of science and superstition, but although it does stretch one’s suspension of disbelief, it’s not too much of a weirdness.

At one stage about halfway through, at 1am, I tried putting it down so I could sleep.  I tossed and turned, but I couldn’t sleep because it had freaked me out far too much –  so I picked it up and kept reading.  The last time I was so freaked out, I was 13 and reading Stephen King’s IT.  Guys, it unsettled me.  I love that.

I liked The Strain more than I expected I would – like The Passage it provides a unique take on the vampire myth while also dealing out some classic old-time scares and delicious shudder-horror moments.  Del Toro’s cinematic style is evident throughout and I hope a film version comes soon.  I can’t wait for the next book!

Thirdly, Jim Butcher.  The Harry Dresden man.  I love Harry Dresden a great deal – a wonderful character, wonderful books, excellent plots.  I was surprised to see he’d written a fantasy series – Codex Alera, in five volumes – since I hadn’t heard a thing about it from anyone.  I checked it out on Amazon, where it has great reviews.  I bought a copy of the first, Furies of Calderon.  Finished it this morning.

Oh my god.  It’s brilliant.

I’m struggling to think of something to balance out this response to it – I can’t think of any criticism at all, which is almost annoying.  I loved it.  The characters felt real to the point where I was actually torn between supporting the good guys and cheering on the bad guys; I don’t doubt that’s a very black-and-white view of proceedings, since Butcher seems to have taken a GRRM-type approach by making even the “main” bad guy pretty sympathetic.  No relationships felt forced or weird.  The action was exciting, the world felt real, I am annoyed I don’t have book 2 – Academ’s Fury – with me right now.  I want to see what else happens to the characters and I want more of the world – I read it in less than a day and could kick myself for racing through it too fast.  If you like epic fantasy, this will excite you.

Also – the fact that it’s a fantasy based on Ancient Rome held me back for a bit as I was entirely unconvinced that I’d find such a setting interesting.  Hell, when I was 14 I told the school librarian that John Wyndham wasn’t for me because I didn’t like science fiction.  She handed me a copy of The Day of the Triffids and smirked as I reassured her that sci fi really wasn’t my thing: two days later, I brought the book back having read it, adored it, and feeling incredibly sheepish.  That’s how I feel now.  Only without the librarian.  I do think the blurb on the back makes it sound much less interesting than it is, but bear in mind I’m trying to be critical, and completely failing.

I think I might actually like it more than the Dresden Files, which is… big.
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