The Aylesford Skull: Absurd steampunk with a subtle wit

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock steampunk audiobook reviewsThe Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock

James P. Blaylock is most famous for being a protégé of Philip K. Dick and, along with his friends K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, developing the steampunk genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s. Blaylock’s most popular steampunk stories take place in Victorian England and feature gentleman inventor Langdon St. Ives and his archnemesis Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, a hunch-backed necromancer. The Aylesford Skull is considered to be the seventh installment of THE NARBONDO SERIES, though each of the LANGDON ST. IVES novels can stand alone.

In The Aylesford Skull, Langdon St. Ives seems to be considering retirement. He and his wife (Alice) and their two small children (Eddie and Cleo) have moved to the country to lead a quiet life. Langdon continues to work on his hobby — building a functioning airship in his barn. Currently he’s trying to figure out how to roll back the roof of the barn so the airship can get out. He’s thinking about acquiring an elephant to provide the pulling power. Meanwhile Alice is fishing for the huge pike that lives in the stream behind their house so she can stuff it. (Are there always fish in Blaylock’s novels? I’m not sure.)

But the peace doesn’t last long. Narbondo’s mother (he has a mother?!) lives up the hill. When she asks St. Ives to help her destroy her son, at first he refuses. But then he discovers that Narbondo has been using a child’s skull to conjure up ghosts. When Narbondo kidnaps Eddie, St. Ives decides to act. He recruits his gentlemen friends from the Royal Academy and off they go to London on a manhunt. Arthur Conan Doyle, who was in town to meet with his publisher, accompanies them. The gentlemen don’t know it yet, but they will also be joined by a few more characters including Alice, Narbondo’s mom, a fortune-teller, and the gardener.

In London they uncover a nefarious plot that involves ghosts, skulls, anarchists, a pipe organ, and a portal to Hell. The plot is zany and chaotic as the characters run around chasing each other all over and underneath London, stopping only for the scientists to dine and for the dastardly villains to monologue. There are plenty of chases, gunshots, and explosions. And, of course, an airship goes up in flames.

I expect that the likelihood of any particular reader enjoying The Aylesford Skull will depend on how well they appreciate Blaylock’s extremely subtle and absurd sense of humor. If it doesn’t amuse you to think of using elephants to solve engineering problems, or to witness a group of gentlemen scientists from the Royal Academy camping in the woods (it’s extremely civilized camping), or to watch them running around London while buildings explode, then you might not find this story entertaining. There are nice period details and dialogue, but the story is slow moving at times (the book’s a bit too long), several of the characters are shallow, and it’s not blatantly funny. Those who are already familiar with Blaylock’s sense of humor and know they enjoy it will surely be entertained by The Aylesford Skull. Those who are unfamiliar with this father of steampunk should certainly give Blaylock a try.

I listened to William Gaminara’s narration of The Aylesford Skull. It’s 12 hours long and produced by Audible Studios. Gaminara does a very nice job with this story and I enjoyed his performance.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Agreed with the statement about Blaylock being for specific tastes. For me he is a breath of fresh air. Fantasy often using roads trodden by hundreds before, the fact Blaylock takes his own quirky path through fantasy-land is an open invitation. But there are, of course, readers who like familiarity. We’ve been warned.

    • “Quirky” is a good word. I also think he’s refreshing, but I try not to read his novels back-to-back. It’s a very distinct sense of humor that I enjoy, but the silliness gets tiring after a while.

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