The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock

Stout wouldn't hold still for a pic!
Stout wouldn’t hold still for a pic!

Why I Read It: 1800s mystery + steampunkishness = incredible read.

Where I Got It: Review copy from the publisher (thanks!)

Who I Recommend This To: If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, or English murder mysteries, you’d enjoy this.

Publisher: Titan Books (2013)

Length: 427 pages

Series: Book 5 of Ignacio Narbondo series; Book 3 of Langdon St. Ives series

Looking at Wikipedia, it was a little difficult to tell where exactly this sits in the series scheme of things, but you have my best guess and the link, so you can go muddle through it yourself, if need be. Honestly, this book works fine as a stand alone even though one can tell that both the main protagonist (St. Ives) and antagonist (Narbondo) have pasts, both with each other and as separate entities. As an introduction to James P. Blaylock‘s body of work, it will have you hooked and looking for more. I truly enjoyed how the suspense built a little at a time in the beginning, and before long we were rolling at a high level of action, concerned for main characters, and itching to thwart Narbondo at every opportunity.

This book combines the history of Victorian England with Holmesian deduction skills and a few steampunk contraptions, such as an airship and special home made rounds for a .30 caliber rifle. Langdon St. Ives and his family recently moved out to the country (his wife’s aunt left them a nice place) to get away from the bustle and intrigue of city life. Indeed, we open with Alice busy fishing, only to find that someone poisons her catch while she is focused on hopefully catching a second pike. Ignacio Narbondo, a known criminal and master mind, is in the area, and St. Ives has no wish to get caught up in whatever scheme he may or may not be up to. Despite warnings from Narbondo’s mother, a neighbor of St. Ives and a spiritualist, St. Ives refuses to get involved until his son disappears.

This is when the real fun starts. St. Ives makes for London, calling in debts by informants and friends alike to track down his son. Also, St. Ives’ ward Finn secretly makes his way to London to redeem himself, as he blames himself for Narbondo abducting young Edward. Mother Laswell, Narbondo’s mum, also travels to London to seek her son out, not even leaving a note for her trusted man Bill Kraken, who figures out her destination anyway and runs after her. Alice is left on the farm with her young daughter and the servants to await the return of her husband and son.

Here Blaylock does a masterful job of revealing Narbondo’s past bit by bit, along with his current scheme so that the reader is left guessing the details to the end. We get the nitty gritty of foggy London, along with a paranormal aspect, as Narbondo is carrying around his half-brother’s skull, which he has turned into a spirit prison. From time to time, he shows this spirit off, causing speculation and fear. Mother Laswell is also something of a spiritualist and uses her talents and a friend’s aid in tracking Narbondo. Throw in an airship, some mechanical toys, and a few high-tech (for the time) weapons, and you also have that steampunk feel without it being overused.

The character development in this novel was well done, with each character having a past and potentially a future. I was engrossed in the St. Ives family from the beginning, but even the ‘bad guys’ were intriguing with some being totally loathsome and deserving death and others caught up in circumstances. The plot was revealed at a suspenseful pace, allowing the reader to put clues together and still keeping the reader guessing about details until the end. Subplots entangled together nicely towards the end. My one criticism is that the ending felt rushed compared to the rest of the novel. SPOILER ALERT Indeed, the ending of Narbondo was a little too simple, easy, and the use of the trapped spirit in this matter seemed a little cliched END SPOILER.

What I Liked: Complex characters left and right; Finn has such an interesting past, one that he prefers not to chat about; Bill Kraken and his simple straight-forward love of Mother Laswell; Alice gets involved in the last quarter of the book; there is a guest appearance of Arthur Doyle; the airship is put to good use; Narbondo isn’t a nebulous evil – no! the vivisection pretty well defines his level of evil; incredible food that had me jealous of the lucky, feasting characters; the cover.

What I Disliked: Capable Alice gets to sit home fretting for 3 quarters of the book; the ending was a little abrupt compared to the rest of the book.

7 thoughts on “The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock”

  1. James P. Blaylock IS steampunk, in my opinion. He does such a masterful job of creating a story with a steampunk aesthetic that never strays away from the story itself to focus on the baubles. I’ve read a couple of works in this series and was impressed with them and I have this one waiting on my tbr shelf. I was excited to see that they are re-releasing some of the other novels in this series with the same covers/format and I hope several new readers discover his work and jump on board.

    1. I was surprised that the steampunk angle wasn’t more of the book, as other steampunk novels are all about the contraptions. I am glad the book was more about the plot and characters, and the steampunk gadgets were simply part of their world.

  2. I’m reading this right now! 😀 I love the characters, and that Blaylock takes the time to flesh out even minor characters, I love St. Ives’s family, I will never forget the scene with Tubby and the pot of jam. I appreciate the subtle steampunk, that the story revolves around the characters and their predicament, not the gadgets (but the awesome gadgets are still there!).

    my one little complaint is that I’m finding the thriller/mystery aspects to be predictable. too many Chekov’s guns lying around, if you catch my meaning.

    1. The mystery part was a bit predictable, but I enjoyed the other aspects (like the characters) so much, I easily overlooked this minor flaw. I will be interested to read your review and your thoughts on the ending.

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