Beneath London sees renowned steampunk author James P. Blaylock return to Victorian London as adventure calls again for Professor Langdon St. Ives.
A perfectly preserved specimen of a rare bird, long extinct, is found when a section of London’s Victoria embankment collapses, leading others to wonder what else may be hidden under the city. When one of his friends invites him to join an expedition through the recently discovered tunnels, scientist-cum-adventurer St. Ives jumps at the opportunity and in doing so, unwittingly finds himself caught up in one man’s villainous plot to take control of London.
There’s something about Victorian London that really captures my imagination, and while I found Beneath London lacked some of the dark atmosphere I’d hoped for, there are still some thrilling locations. None more so than the tunnels beneath London: Blaylock has created a labyrinthine cave system, populated by strange plants and creatures, and full of mystery. Above ground too, there are some good settings, with the Madhouse perhaps the best of these, where the underhanded Dr. Peavy practices a twisted form of eugenics on his patients.
The book for me got a little bogged down in its characters. The main characters are great: St. Ives is a strong protagonist, well-spoken and intelligent, the classic Victorian gentleman. Klingheimer, the main villain, is every inch his match too, almost a reverse of the hero of the story. Beaumont the dwarf is also a stand-out: an old circus member who uses his skills to get by, he only looks out for himself and chooses sides based on the benefit to him. Yet problems begin when others are introduced as there are just so many of them on both sides. The action shifts perspective regularly to keep track of all that is happening and I found it a disruptive experience, often breaking the flow of the story.
On the whole though, the writing is good and some of the set pieces are excellent. There’s a dry humour that runs throughout, driven particularly by St. Ives, and a strong sense of camaraderie as the friends work together to stop Klingheimer. I felt that Blaylock captured the spirit of the period well too; the pursuit of adventure, the investigation of madness and scientific discovery all feature in the novel, alongside a well-realised version of Victorian London.
Given the setting and lead character, it is hard not to compare the book to Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. While it does not match the heights of these famous detective stories, Beneath London has some great moments. It stumbles slightly with so many characters and a reliance on events in the previous novel, but it is a good old-fashioned adventure story and fans of this genre will find much to enjoy.
Beneath London by James P. Blaylock
1783292601|Titan Books pbk
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