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Review: The Aylesford Skull

March 7, 2013

James P. Blaylock is a new author to me, so I entered this book not quite sure what to expect. I had already committed a heinous sin against myself, which was never to start a series – books, movies, games, anything – in the middle. I had hoped that The Aylesford Skull would be worth it.

So, within the first fifty pages we have a pirate attack, a bombing, murder, a sewer chase and an appearance of a ghost. It’s quite exciting stuff, to say the least, and it’s always refreshing for authors to kill off characters as quickly as they were introduced.

The book centres around Langdon St. Ives, a Sherlock-like eccentric and explorer, whose talent for exploring often gets him into some rather creative trouble. This soon extends to his family: with his wife poisoned and his son kidnapped, St. Ives chases after the perpetrator of these crimes, the infamous Dr. Narbondo.

I’m not sure if I was missing any background information about St. Ives when I read about him, because I wasn’t presented with much information in The Aylesford Skull to adequately figure him out. As a result, almost all of the other characters in the book seemed to have more personality than him, though I am willing to attribute that to my jumping into the middle of a series.

Getting into the book takes some perseverance, as Blaylock’s style of writing can be a little dated to newer readers of sci-fi. The narrative language can drag on at times, though does lend a Victorian slant on the book that would be lost with more general descriptive terms. For example:

St. Ives nodded, started to reply, but was abruptly distracted when it came into his mind that he had been promised begonia cuttings, and that he might have time to fetch them before leaving for the station. The thought perked him up considerably . . . [Alice] would be doubly happy to see him if he arrived with cuttings, and, it seemed to him at that moment, her happiness was his own.

The motivations behind the characters are demonstrated in such a neutral manner, and at first glance, it may even sound a little boring, but the story’s worth the ride.

The characters are interesting enough, though quite predictable (St. Ives almost always gets himself into trouble, Narbondo kills anyone he even so much as breathes at after a few sentences). Don’t expect any grand revelations as to the character’s motivations: make no mistake, this is a book created for its thrills, not its intellectualism.

I had mindless fun reading this book and it will certainly appeal to fans of the genre. There’s some attempt at conveying a mystery long enough for you to only find out toward the end of the book, but I found myself guessing what happens quite a way before that. The ending, particularly the confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, also seems a little rushed.

However, it doesn’t detract from an otherwise enjoyable read. If you like authors who routinely kill off one of their cast with Russian Roulette-style abandon, you’ll love Blaylock’s writing, and if you’ve even paddled with the steampunk genre before, then you’ll know what you’re in for. My only experience prior to this was playing Dishonored, but I felt right at home.

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