Spring-Heeled Jack is pretty much what you’d expect it to be – it’s good, fun steampunk set in an alternate version of Victorian England. The “twist” is that it actually explains how the alternate reality came to be. It also involves a whole cast of real-life characters, including the explorer Richard Francis Burton, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, scientist Charles Darwin and revolutionary nurse Florence Nightingale. In fact, many of the lesser characters are real people too, including Burton’s fiancé Isabel Arundell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and the Marquess of Waterford. Even Spring-Heeled Jack is based on true stories; the girls he attacks are real, it’s only the explanation for the attacks that are fiction.
According to Wikipedia,
Spring-heeled Jack was described by people who claimed to have seen him as having a terrifying and frightful appearance, with diabolical physiognomy, clawed hands, and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire”. One report claimed that, beneath a black cloak, he wore a helmet and a tight-fitting white garment like an oilskin. Many stories also mention a “Devil-like” aspect. Others said he was tall and thin, with the appearance of a gentleman. Several reports mention that he could breathe out blue and white flames and that he wore sharp metallic claws at his fingertips. At least two people claimed that he was able to speak comprehensible English.
While Spring-heeled Jack is considered to be an urban legend, there are many reports of sightings throughout England and Scotland. Spring-heeled Jack was first sighted in 1838, when he attacked a girl named Mary Stevens. Sightings were reported as recently as 1986. The strange thing about these reports is that Jack never actually harms anyone. He is known to have shot blue fire at people, ripped women’s clothes off, and slapped people on a few occasions, but generally in these reports when the victim screams, Jack runs off.
Hodder builds his story around this strange and fascinating legend, keeping nearly all the historical details, but at the same time creating a new world where Queen Victoria is assassinated, and things like velocipedes, rotochairs, verbally abusive messenger parrots, and pneumatic rail. In many ways, this world echoes the one created by Scott Westerfeld in his Leviathan series, in which the Darwinists fight the Clankers for control of Europe. Hodder goes a step further. There are Eugenicists, Technologists, Libertines, and Rakes, each trying to carry out their various philosophies.
The story centers on Burton, who is about to debate his close but estranged friend John Hanning Speke, when he finds out that Speke has shot himself. When Speke is abducted from the hospital, Burton goes searching for him. This leads him to an encounter with Spring-heeled Jack, which leads to being hired by the Prime Minister of England to track down Jack, find out why children are being abducted and to stop a band of savage werewolves. Burton had been planning to marry and take a consulate position somewhere quiet, but he takes the job as special agent to the King instead.
Not surprisingly, this book is guilty of some excess – it doesn’t always make sense and you won’t be able to keep track of all the strange characters. But if you like this sort of thing you won’t mind. This book beat most steampunk novels for creativity. Does it borrow? Sure. I’m nearly positive I’ve heard of obscene messenger parrots (or something similar) in another book. But the writing is clever and funny, and Hodder does a brilliant job of weaving together the history and the myth of Spring-heeled Jack, and throws in time travel to boot.
While Hodder’s book was definitely fluffy, I like a book where I actually learn about something that really happened. This book not only gave me a great story, but a whole new perspective on Victorian history and the different factions of the time. Its sequel, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, will definitely go on my TBR list.