James P. Blaylock,
The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs
(Subterranean Press, 2011)

I made the acquaintance of James P. Blaylock's popular inventor and hero, Langdon St. Ives, and his charming collection of allies (along with his nemesis, Ignacio Narbondo) in The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs. And already I know I want to deepen this newfound relationship.

This short novel -- fewer than 180 pages -- begins with an outbreak of madness at the Explorers Club in London. Our hero, however, is drowning his sorrow at a nearby pub, where he bemoans the misadventure that lured him away from his lovely bride and drove a rift between them. He plans to make what amends he may upon her return from a visit to relatives in the country when news arrives that a bewildering madness has struck there, too.

A mystery afoot and his wife imperiled? St. Ives is quick to respond. It's fair to note, however, that the book centers less on St. Ives' actions than it does on those of his good friend, Jack Owlesby, who narrates the tale, and to a lesser degree his friend Tubby Frobisher and his serving man, Hasbro.

St. Ives, alas, is quickly captured, although his plan to rescue his wife succeeds admirably. It's up to the rest of the gang to free St. Ives from his predicament and foil Narbondo's plot for global domination.

The tale, touted by its publisher as Blaylock's "longest steampunk adventure in two decades," comes wrapped in a full-color wrap-around dust jacket (not included with my copy, more's the pity) and 20 black-and-white illustrations by J.K. Potter. Those illustrations are extraordinary, just shy of being photographs, and they showcase Blaylock's characters with gleeful, ghoulish style.

The story is a very entertaining read, filled with the tropes -- such as an emerald-powered confusion ray -- that make steampunk such a delightful genre. The Victorian elements are also in play, and Blaylock has obviously mastered 19th-century England. My only complaint about this book is its brevity; I could easily have enjoyed more pages in a similar vein.

St. Ives has a literary history that goes back much further than Chalk Cliffs. It looks like I'll need to form my own Explorers Club and ferret it out.

book review by
Tom Knapp

11 June 2011

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