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"The usual superlatives for really clever fantasy (imaginative, mind-bending, phantasmagorical) aren't nearly big enough for this debut novel. With this one book, Hodder has put himself on the genre map."
-Booklist, starred review of The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack
"Hodder, with an encyclopedic grasp of period detail, tellingly brings these disparate, oddly familiar yet eerily different worlds to fecund life. Enthralling, dizzying, and as impressive as they come."
-Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Every once in a while I come across a book, or series of books, that totally yanks the carpet out from under me. Then it reaches out, smashes me in the face with its awesomeness, and says, 'You love me!' Leaving me with naught to do but obligingly respond, 'Yes. Yes I do.' [The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man] was every bit the book that I had hoped it would be."
-Elitist Book Reviews
"Whatever one chooses to call [The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack], it would be very difficult to deny its overwhelming brilliance. I can't remember the last time a novel has surprised, awed, and enthused me so utterly that I'm almost left at a loss for words for how to recommend it."
-Rob Will Review
"The future influences the present just as much as the past." —FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE
Sir Richard Francis Burton wriggled beneath a bush at the edge of a thicket in the top western corner of Green Park, London, and cursed himself for a fool. He should have realised that he'd lose consciousness. He should have arrived earlier to compensate. Now the whole mission was in jeopardy.
He lay flat for a moment, until the pain in his side abated, then hefted his rifle and propped himself up on his elbows, aiming the weapon at the crowd below. He glanced at the inscription on its stock. It read: Lee-Enfield Mk III. Manufactured in Tabora, Africa, 1918.
Squinting through the telescopic sight, he examined the faces of the people gathering around the path at the bottom of the slope.
Where was his target?
His eyes blurred. He shook his head slightly, trying to dispel an odd sense of dislocation, the horrible feeling that he was divided into two separate identities. He'd first experienced this illusion during fevered bouts of malaria in Africa back in '57, then again four years later, when he was made the king's agent. He thought he'd conquered it. Perhaps he had. After all, this time there really were two of him.
It was the afternoon of the 10th of June, 1840, and a much younger Richard Burton was currently travelling from Italy through Europe, on his way to enrol at Trinity College, Oxford.
Recalling that wayward, opinionated, and ill-disciplined youngster, he whispered, "Time changed me, thank goodness. The question is, can I return the favour?"
He aimed from face to face, seeking the man he'd come to shoot.
It was a mild day. The gentlemen sported light coats and top hats, and carried canes. The ladies were adorned in bonnets and dainty gloves and held parasols. They were all waiting to see Queen Victoria ride past in her carriage.
He levelled the crosshairs at one person after another. Young Edward Oxford was somewhere among the crowd, an insane eighteen-year-old with two flintlock pistols under his frock coat and murder on his mind. But Burton was not here to gun down the queen's would-be assassin.
"Damnation!" His hands were shaking. Lying stretched out like this would have been uncomfortable for any man his age—he was forty-seven years old—but it was made far worse by the two ribs the prime minister's man, Gregory Hare, had broken. They felt like a knife in his side.
He shifted cautiously, trying not to disturb the bush. It was vital that he remain concealed.
A face caught his attention. It was round, decorated with a large moustache, and possessed a palpable air of arrogance. Burton had never seen the individual before—at least not with this appearance—but he knew him: Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, called by many the "Mad Marquess." The man was the founder of the Libertines, a politically influential movement that preached freedom from social shackles and which passionately opposed technological progress. Three years from now, Beresford was going to lead a breakaway group of radicals, the Rakes, whose anarchic philosophy would challenge social propriety. The marquess believed that the human species was restricting its own evolution; that each individual had the potential to become a trans-natural man, a being entirely free of restraint, with no conscience or self-doubt, a thing that did whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. It was a dangerous idea—the Great War had proved that to Burton—but not one that concerned him at this particular moment.
"I'll be dealing with you twenty-one years from now," he murmured.
A distant cheer echoed across the park. The gates of Buckingham Palace had opened and the royal carriage was steering out onto the path.
"Come on!" Burton whispered. "Where are you?"
Where was the man he'd come to kill?
Where was Spring Heeled Jack?
* * *
He peered through the 'scope. The scene he saw through its lens was incomprehensible. Shapes, movement, shadows, deep colours; they refused to coalesce into anything of substance. The world had shattered, and he was splintered and scattered among its debris.
Dead. Obviously, he was dead.
No. Stop it. This won't do. Don't submit to it. Not again.
He closed his eyes, dug his fingernails into his palms, and pulled his lips back over his teeth. By sheer force of will, he located the disparate pieces of himself and drew them together, until:
Frank Baker. My name is Frank Baker.
Good. That felt familiar.
He smelled cordite. Noise assaulted his ears. The air was hot.
Frank Baker. Yes. The name had slipped from his mouth in response to a medic's query.
"And what are you, Mr. Baker?"
A strange question.
An equally strange answer. Like the name, it had come out of nowhere, but the overworked medics were perfectly satisfied with it.
Spells of nothingness had followed. Fevers. Hallucinations. Then recovery. They'd assumed he was with the civilian Observer Corps, and placed him under the charge of the short squeaky-voiced individual currently standing at his side.
What else? What else? What were those things I was looking at?
He opened his eyes. There wasn't much light.
He became aware of something crushed in his fist, opened his hand, looked down at it, and found that he was holding a red poppy. It felt important. He didn't know why. He slipped it into his pocket.
Pushing the brim of his tin helmet back, he wiped sweat from his forehead, then lifted the top of his periscope over the lip of the trench and peered through its viewfinder again. To his left, the crest of a bloated sun was melting into a horizon that quivered in the heat, and ahead, in the gathering gloom, seven towering, long-legged arachnids were picking their way through the red weed that clogged no-man's-land. Steam was billowing from their exhaust funnels, pluming stark white against the darkening purple sky.
Harvestmen, he thought. Those things are harvestmen spiders bred to a phenomenal size by the Technologists' Eugenicist faction. No, wait, not Eugenicists—they're the enemy—our lot are called Geneticists. The arachnids are grown and killed and gutted and engineers fit out their carapaces with steam-driven machinery.
He examined the contraptions more closely and noted details that struck him as different—but different from what? There were, for instance, Gatling guns slung beneath their small bodies, where Baker expected to see cargo nets. They swivelled and glinted and flashed as they sent a hail of bullets into the German trenches, and their metallic clattering almost drowned out the chug of the vehicles' engines. The harvestmen were armour-plated, too, and each driver, rather than sitting on a seat fitted inside the hollowed-out body, was mounted on a sort of saddle on top of it, which suggested that the space inside the carapace was filled with bigger, more powerful machinery than—than—
What am I comparing them with?
"Quite a sight, isn't it?" came a high-pitched voice.
Baker cleared his throat. He wasn't ready to communicate, despite a vague suspicion that he'd already done so—that he and the small man beside him had made small talk not too many minutes ago.
He opened his mouth to speak, but his companion went on: "If I were a poet, I might do it justice, but it's too much of a challenge for a mere journalist. How the devil am I to describe such an unearthly scene? Anyone who hasn't actually witnessed it would think I'm writing a scientific romance. Perhaps they'll call me the new Jules Verne."
Think! Come on! String together the man's words. Break the back of the language. Glean meaning from it.
He sucked in a breath as a memory flowered. He was on a bed in the field hospital. There was a newspaper in his hands. He was reading a report, and it had been written by this short, plump little fellow.
Yes, that's it. Now speak, Baker. Open your mouth and speak!
"You'll manage," he said. "I read one of your articles the other day. You have a rare talent. Who's Jules Verne?"
He saw the little man narrow his eyes and examine him through the twilight, trying to make out his features.
"A French novelist. He was killed during the fall of Paris. You haven't heard of him?"
"I may have," Baker answered, "but I must confess, I remember so little about anything that I'm barely functional."
"Ah, of course. It's not an uncommon symptom of shell shock, or of fever, for that matter, and you suffered both severely by all accounts. Do you know why you were in the Lake Regions?"
The Lake Regions? They are in—they are in Africa! This is Africa!
"I haven't the foggiest notion. My first recollection is of being borne along on a litter. The next thing I knew, I was here, being poked at by the medical staff."
The journalist grunted and said, "I did some asking around. The men from the Survey Corps found you near the western shore of the Ukerewe Lake, on the outskirts of the Blood Jungle. A dangerous place to be—always swarming with Germans. You were unarmed, that odd glittering hieroglyph appeared to have been freshly tattooed into your head, and you were ranting like a madman."
Baker reached up, pushed his hand beneath his helmet, and ran his fingers through his short hair. There were hard ridges in his scalp.
"I don't remember any of that."
I don't remember. I don't remember. I don't remember.
"The surveyors wanted to take you to Tabora but the route south was crawling with lurchers, so they legged it east until they hooked up with the battalions gathering here. You were in and out of consciousness throughout the hike but never lucid enough to explain yourself."
The correspondent was suddenly interrupted by the loud "Ulla! Ulla!" of a siren. It was a harvestman spider signalling its distress. He turned his attention back to his periscope and Baker followed suit.
One of the gigantic vehicles had become entangled. Scarlet tendrils were coiling around its stilt-like legs, snaking up toward the driver perched high above the ground. The man was desperately yanking at the control levers in an attempt to shake the writhing plant from his machine. He failed. The harvestman leaned farther and farther to its left, then toppled over, dragged down by the carnivorous weed. The siren gurgled and died. The driver rolled from his saddle, tried to stand, fell, and started to thrash about. He screeched as plant pods burst beneath his weight and sprayed him with acidic sap. His uniform erupted into flames and the flesh bubbled and fizzled from his bones. It took less than a minute for the weed to reduce him to a naked skeleton.
"Poor sod," the little man muttered. He lowered his surveillance instrument and shook dust from his right hand. "Did you see the weed arrive yesterday? I missed it. I was sleeping."
"Apparently a thin ribbon of cloud, like a snake, blew in from the sea and rained the seeds. The plant sprouted overnight and it's been growing ever since. It appears quite impassable. I tell you, Baker, those blasted Hun sorcerers know their stuff when it comes to weather and plants. It's how they still drum hundreds of thousands more Africans into the military than we do. The tribes are so superstitious, they'll do anything you say if they believe you can summon or prevent rain and grow them a good crop. Colonel Crowley is having a tough time opposing them—the sorcerers, I mean."
Baker struggled to process all this. Sorcerers? Plants? Weather control?
"Crowley?" he asked.
The shorter man raised his eyebrows. "Good lord! Your brain really is shot through! Colonel Aleister Crowley. Our chief medium. The wizard of wizards!"
Baker said nothing.
The correspondent shrugged in bafflement, pressed up against the side of the trench as a line of troops pushed past, chuckled as a sergeant said, with a grin and a wink, "Keep your heads down, gents, I don't want holes in those expensive helmets," then turned back to his 'scope. Baker watched this and struggled to overcome his sense of detachment.
I don't belong here. I don't understand any of it.
He wiped his sleeve across his mouth—the atmosphere was thick with humidity and he was sweating profusely—then put his eye to his periscope's lens.
Two more of the harvestmen were being pulled down into the wriggling flora. He said, "How many men must die before someone orders the blasted vehicles to pull back?"
"We won't retreat," came the answer. "This is our last chance. If we can capture German resources in Africa, we might be able to launch some sort of counterattack in Europe. If not, we're done for. So we'll do whatever it takes, even if it means pursuing forlorn hopes. Look! Another one has gone down!"
The three remaining harvestmen set their sirens screaming: "Ulla! Ulla! Ulla! Ulla!"
The journalist continued, "Terrible racket. One could almost believe the damned spiders are alive and terrified."
Baker shook his head slightly. "Strictly speaking, they're not spiders. Spiders are of the order Aranaea, whereas harvestmen are Opiliones."
How do I know that?
The war correspondent snorted. "They're not of any order now—not since our Technologists scraped 'em out!"
All along the British trenches, men started to blow on whistles.
"Damn! Here comes our daily dose of spores. Get your mask on."
Baker moved without thinking about it. His hands went to his belt, opened a canvas container, pulled out a thick rubber mask, and slid it over his face. He and his companion looked at each other through circular glass eyepieces.
"I hate the smell of these things," the smaller man said, his voice muffled. "And they make me claustrophobic. Far too stifling an item to wear in this infernal climate. What say we go back to the dugout for a brew? It's getting too dark for us to see much more here anyway. Time for a cuppa! Come on!"
Baker took a last glance through his periscope. His mask's eyepieces blurred the scene, and Africa's fast-descending night obscured it even further, but he could just make out that on the far side of the weed a thick yellow cloud was advancing, appearing luminescent against the inky sky. He shivered, turned, and followed the other along the front-line trench, into a communications ditch, and back to one of the dugouts. They passed masked soldiers—mostly Askari, African recruits, many of them barely out of childhood—who sat despondently, waiting to go over the top.
The two men arrived at a doorway, pushed a heavy curtain aside, and entered. They removed their helmets and face gear.
"Make sure the curtain is hooked back into place, it'll keep the spores out. I'll get us some light," the journalist said.
Moments later, a hurricane lamp illuminated the small underground bunker. It was sparsely furnished with two wooden beds, two tables, three chairs, and a couple of storage chests.
"Ugh!" Baker grunted. "Rats!"
"Nothing we can do about 'em. The little blighters are everywhere. They're the least of your problems. In a couple of days, that nice clean uniform of yours will be infested with lice and you'll feel like you're being eaten alive. Where's the bloody kettle? Ah, here!"
The little man got to work with a portable stove. In the light, his eyes were revealed to be a startling blue.
Baker stepped to the smaller of the two tables, which stood against the wall. There was a washbasin on it and a square mirror hanging on a nail just above. He sought his reflection but for some reason couldn't focus on it. Either his eyes wouldn't let him see himself, or he wasn't really there.
He moved to the other table, in the middle of the dugout, and sat down.
"The spores," he said. "What are they? Where do they come from?"
"They're more properly called A-Spores. The Hun propagate giant mushrooms, a eugenically altered version of the variety commonly known as the Destroying Angel, or Amanita bisporigera, if you prefer your botany, like your entomology, in Latin. It's deadly, and so are its spores. Breathe them in and within seconds you'll experience vomiting, cramps, delirium, convulsions, and diarrhoea. You'll be dead in less than ten minutes."
"Botanical weapons? The weed and now the mushroom spores. How horribly ingenious!"
The other man looked back at Baker with an expression of puzzlement. "It's common knowledge that the Germans use mostly plant-based armaments, surely? And occasional animal adaptations."
Excerpted from Expedition to the mountains of the moon by Mark Hodder Copyright © 2011 by Mark Hodder. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 25, 2014
As with all the Burton and Swinburne adventures, Expeditions to the Mountains of the Moon advanced the overall story of alternate histories. This book especially was a cliff hanger because you weren't sure if all the main characters would survive and reappear in the next book. Many did in the fourth book, The Secret of Abdu el Yezdi.
Mark Hodder has a wonderful imagination and continues to surprise with how time works and the many finely drawn historical people who enter Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne's lives.
I enjoy the series and look forward to the next book in July.
Posted April 5, 2013
I am thankful and amazed that Mark Hodder has such a talent for writing. His third work completes a story full of well defined characters, unique environments and intertwined story lines. This is the last book in the series and they should be read in proper order. Mr. Hodder takes considerable care in developing conflicts in the first portion of his books, then resolves them toward the end. This is not particularly unique, but it is worthwhile to be reminded of this as he creates his skein.
Posted February 15, 2012
The third book in the series was good, but compared to the others, it left me a bit underwhelmed. I didn't find myself staying up late, like I did with The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack. Or try to figure out the twist as in The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. This one is pretty much a run & gun adventure. But the pace was slower, there really wasn't a "who done it" plot and the wonder of steam just wasn't there for me. Eugenics (which really took more of a backseat to clockwork & steam in previous books) did play a major part in this book, which I found cool. In short: Was it a good read? Sure. Did it bookend the series? Well, kind of. Do I *have* to read the other two books before this one: Oh yeah!! Would I buy more from this author: Heck, yeah!! Like the previous books, Hodder peppers it with famous names, which sometimes sends me googling names or places. The whole premise of why there is an alternate reality is also very interesting. Awesome....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 29, 2012
I really enjoyed the previous two books and this one kept the momentum going--so much so that it went off the rails. Though I admire the author for not playing it safe. The 388 pages flew by and I was never bored. I loved the historical figures although I still think Hodder's Burton was more about Hodder's wish fulfillment than any actual historical portrayal and his Burton & Swinburne reminded me of a Victorian Batman & Robin with Isabel as Batgirl. So when read with credulity sheathed it is very enjoyable.
I do hope that there will be more in the series as the ending left things up in the air. Perhaps a short story collection with past cases and future events written in a penny-dreadful style.
Posted April 24, 2012
No text was provided for this review.