The Secret of Abdu el Yezdi: a Burton and Swinburne Adventure
By Mark Hodder
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
It’s no surprise that the steampunk genre has become a legitimate, I daresay, mainstream fiction genre. When genres get legitimized, they fall under the threat of homogenization. The edges get shaved off and it turns into a oatmeal-colored mass of middlebrow inoffensiveness. Historically speaking, steampunk is almost as old as its counterpart cyberpunk. (Both entered the scene in the Eighties.) Steampunk’s greatest threat is that it would become boring. It’s not like readers have a lack of choices on bookshelves these days. Thus it is easy for voracious genre readers, con-goers, and Victorian history buffs to get jaded. Victorian hipsters … I’m throwing that out there. “I liked airships and blunderbusses before they were cool.”
Luckily there is fiction impresario Mark Hodder and his gonzo brilliant Burton & Swinburne Adventures. For those new to the genre and this series specifically, here’s a thumbnail dual biography: Sir Richard Francis Burton was a polymath, adventurer, translator, and diplomat. He was the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca. He translated The Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights. Suffice to say, he wasn’t your normal ordinary Victorian gentleman. Algernon Charles Swinburne was a Decadent poet, Hellenist, and flagellation aficionado. (Hodder, brilliantly, weaves Swinburne’s penchant for flagellation into a pivotal plot point. It’s a nice breath of fresh air to see the BDSM lifestyle portrayed with gentle humor, not painting Swinburne as some maladjusted freak.) Both were close friends in real life and both couldn’t abide or adjust to the strictures of Victorian court life and organized religion. Nothing spices up a narrative like using two intellectual, arrogant, idiosyncratic oddballs as the hero figures.
Now, to the plot! Burton is returning from Africa to receive a knightship when he witnesses a strange pagan ritual on an airship, the end result being murder. The setting is an alternate England in 1859. Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840, placing the Teutonic royal George V on the throne. Prince Albert acts as an advisor to the King. As is typical of the genre, steam power has accelerated the development of transportation. Hence, airships, motorized horses pulling carriages, and clockwork butlers. (My only minor pique with this novel is the issue involving technological development and its potential for creating mass unemployment. What do former butlers think? Unemployed horse grooms? Let’s see something about this roiling underbelly of class resentment.)
But labor relations aside, Hodder brings the goods to the genre. Upon arrival in London, Burton is advised by King George V and tasked with the cause of investigating the mysterious disappearances of notable scientists and researchers. There are also nefarious diplomatic moves with Great Britain making overtures to the Greater German Confederation. This becomes critical because both Prince Albert and Ernest Augustus I (later George V in the novel) come from German aristocratic families. (Although in our history, Germany didn’t become modern Germany until Otto von Bismarck completed his wars of unification ending in 1870. In Hodder’s timeline, Bismarck is shunted off as a diplomat to the Russian court.)
We meet Swinburne later in the novel as Burton forms a Steampunk Scooby Gang with French occultist Eliphas Levi to solve the mystery of these abductions. We also meet Richard Burton’s brother Edward, an overweight notable in the royal court, much to Richard’s chagrin. The sibling rivalry between Richard and Edward reminds me of the Holmes brothers in the BBC reboot of Sherlock. Hodder, like the writers of Sherlock, brings the same expert crafting of narrative, creating a delicate balance between adventure, mystery, humor, and menace. But Hodder ups the ante and throws in a mindscrew or two along the way. Things get wobbly and scary like a chessboard in a Lewis Carroll novel. (Carroll also shows up, part of Swinburne’s entourage of literati.)
Full disclosure: I have not read the previous three Burton & Swinburne novels, but after reading this, they sure look a lot more tempting. I met Pyr’s editor Lou Anders at CONvergence last weekend and he categorized this novel as a “reboot” of the Burton & Swinburne series a la the 2009 Star Trek. If this aids in your reading the book, that’s great. I enjoyed the book thoroughly before knowing such things about the series. I’m also giving it a high score because it was really fun to read and has great crossover potential. Those new to steampunk, wondering what all the goggles and airships are about, or steampunk superfans, make sure to read this. Or those simply looking for a fun read with solid characters, rip roaring plot, and explorations of Victorian occultism, check this book out.
Out of 10/9.5