The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack – Mark Hodder

About the Book
It is 1861, and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces. Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as “King’s Spy.” His first mission: to investigate the sexual assaults committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke. Accompanied by the diminutive and pain-loving poet, Algernon Swinburne, Burton’s investigations lead him back to one of the defining events of the age: the brutal assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840; and the terrifying possibility that the world he inhabits shouldn’t exist at all.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to read this book. Then, I read the back of it and decided it was just about weird enough for me to give it a shot. I’m glad I did. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack was an incredibly fun romp through an alternative Victorian-esque England merged harmoniously with enough steampunk elements to make the already unique setting absolutely captivating.
While it does take about a fourth of the book for Hodder to iron out his prose, the payoff is wonderful. The story is incredibly fast paced and the unique steampunk and odd animal elements (like broomcat, or the messenger birds who curse constantly) would make this book worth reading even if the plot progressed at a snail’s pace. The world Hodder created was brilliantly realized and so amazingly unique that it seems to spring to life. I read this book as much for the story as to learn more about the world he created and the creatures within it.
Hodder perfectly punctuates The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack with equal parts of mystery, humor and philosophy insuring that it has a little something for everyone. It is also important to note as Hodder took a time of dramatic social changes and did them justice by devoting time to the major philosophies that were abounding at the time. For example, with the increase use of machines, many people were afraid of loosing their jobs. Hodder uses this worry many faced and creates an entire social philosophy out of it which plays a large role in this book. Another example of what I’m talking about is his use of genetically engineered animals used for specific purposes (eg: messenger birds), the production of which uses Darwin’s various writings as their basis.
Hodder isn’t shy about the elements I mentioned above. In fact, they play a huge role in his world giving it an almost renaissance feel. He brazenly discusses everything from worker’s rights, to religion and even adds a level of sickening pollution to London to nicely balance things. While this period of time was pivotal to social changes, he isn’t afraid to focus on the nasty as well as the nice. The realism he uses to paint his world with was not only good with making his book vibrant, but also history itself. Many of the concerns and discussions here causes me to give more thought to the individuals who really did live back then and the problems they may/may not have faced. The harmony between real and make believe was nicely done and thought provoking.
Hodder also used many well-known historical figures in this book, like Sir Richard Francis Burton who was a famous explorer. While I feel that the characters lacked some of the lush realism I found in his world, they were still believable and well done. It was a gamble for Hodder to take by adding unique voices and perspectives to historical figures so many have heard of. This may not annoy some readers; though it might serve to bother others who may find the use of popular historical figures cliche or tired. While I felt that this worked for the book on the whole, I have seen several readers make a complaint about this point so I felt I should mention it in my review. 
This book can be boiled down to an unsolved mystery regarding this Spring Heeled Jack who dominates the title of this work. However, there are so many other elements at work here that the mystery seemed to be almost a delectable addition to the world and characters Hodder created. Hodder seemed to know how to perfectly balance the mystery with history, world building and character development. While the plot moves quickly, he spends enough time on each element to insure that it all develops harmoniously.
Hodder’s writing is the perfect compliment to the feel of this work as a whole. While something like this could easily get overly serious, he keeps The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack rolling along with an almost lighthearted feel despite some of the darker elements in it. While some readers may feel that, at times, the plot gets bogged down with philosophical discussions (which I adored) or feel that the more campy and slapstick portions of the book felt slightly tiresome, it’s impossible to be too bothered by this. These portions do add some balance to the work as a whole by lightening the mood, or giving attention to important schools of thought which do play roles in the overarching plot. And Hodder’s writing keeps things moving steadily forward. There is some science fiction elements added in for good measure and while this may jar some readers, it seems to compliment the work well.
The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is a delicious mystery wrapped in a time of social change in an alternative steampunk Victorian age.  Hodder was brave to use well-known historical figures in his work and give them unique voices. The start of this work was slightly bumpy and some of the philosophical and slapstick portions did seem to bog the plot down a little. However, when looking at the work as a whole it is obvious that they did serve to balance to the mood and important social aspects, as well as drive the plot forward. All in all, this book managed to seem light despite its dark tones, gave brilliant life to historical figures and social worries while adding unique touches all Hodder’s own. If the world seemed more vibrant than the characters, it’s easy to overlook. The book has something for everyone all tied together with mystery and a nicely crafted steampunk ribbon.
4/5 stars

10 Responses

  • Brenda

    I keep seeing this one everywhere. I'm actually not too big on the steampunk genre, so I'm not sure how well I'd like it, but I may give it a try sometime.

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    I wasn't really into steampunk either and it's still not my favorite but there's some great stuff in that genre.

  • Mark Timmony

    Great review! One of my staff just read this and she has been raving about it in the store.

  • Liviu

    I liked this one too, but less than i expected; the first half is shaky when the book does not know what it wants to be – steampunk or Dickensian Victoriana a la Drood say and the two mix awkwardly; then it goes up a step though it still keeps some annoying stuff like villain declaiming when fighting and such.

  • redhead

    sure, there's some clunky bits, but I thought the "twist" was so brilliant that I could forgive anything.

    Sarah, if you've got any interest in trying some more excellent steampunk, see if you can find a copy of SM Peter's Whitechapel Gods. I think it came out about 5 years ago.

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    Thanks for the suggestion, Redhead. I'm going to put that one on my "to read" list. Right now I'm reading a steampunk scifi book called Virga: Cities of the Air and I'm really enjoying it. Steampunk is a really interesting genre that I'm looking forward to exploring more fully.

    Liviu, I can see what you mean on that. I did think quite a few parts of this book came across awkwardly, but it was easy for me to forgive. I absolutely loved the victorian/steampunk mixture.

  • Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom)

    I was unsure about Spring Heeled Jack based on the cover (it keeps me thinking, 'what the hell is going on there?', but the blurb alone has piqued my interest. I've gotten a little more into steampunk since Cold Magic, so I think Spring Heeled Jack is the next point of call for me 😀 Thanks for the review, I wanna get this on my to read shelf soon!

  • ediFanoB

    I loved Spring-Heeled Jack a lot which I expressed in my own review. And after reading your review I know you liked too. Anyway I can't wait to read the next book in the series: The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
    It will hit the book stores in March 2011.

  • Benjamin

    I read this and enjoyed it quite a bit as well. I did feel that perhaps he tried to do a little too much with so many different elements, but on the whole it does work well.

  • Sarah (Bookworm Blues)

    Benjamin, I agree with what you are saying. I do think he stretched himself a little thin with all he was trying to attack in this book, as it was only 350ish pages long.

    I did, however, think he did a great job at reflecting a changing society. I also really liked the philosophical discussions, but I'm a complete sucker for that kind of thing. :p

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