The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (A Tale of Langdon St. Ives #1)

It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives.

When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit...

There are many things that keep my interests up in the fantasy genre and one of them is the sub genre steampunk. Last year I read a few books that featured this setting in a wild and flashy display. And to my pleasure there was a review request for The Aylesford Skull by James P. Blaylock and on the cover it mentioned “Steampunk legend”, this got my hopes up high. Looking further into the author, it is mentioned that James P. Blaylock was one of the pioneers of the steampunk movement together with Tim Powers and K.W. Peter. With this in the back of my mind I immediately accepted the review request. Because what can be better than reading a book from one of the authors who started up this amazingly rich genre?

Just a quick note before I start. The Aylesford Skull is not like any of the more modern mainstream steampunk books out there, where there is oftentimes a rather high emphasis on the mechanisms that make those worlds go round: automatons, explosive devices and cogs and sprockets that fly around your ears. More on the contrary to this. Though The Aylesford Skull starts of with this premise the story soon takes another turn, lying the story more on the personal stories of several of the featuring characters and dressing their tales with influences of steampunk. On top of this mechanized part of the story there is also a great integration of a magical and supernatural element to the story featuring The Aylesford Skull itself. This taken together with the personal story make the magical/supernatural part woven into the story truly come to life. I must say that I was not expecting this take on steampunk since my senses were aimed at something different after having read the books of Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris. But I have to admit that The Aylesford Skull was just an amazing, gripping and brilliant read for me, it is in the difference of the take on telling the story that I found the richness and pleasure in indulging me in this book. The whole premise of The Aylesford Skull make this book really hard to put down.

The main protagonist of The Aylesford Skull - and some other books written by James P. Blaylock - is the rather eccentric scientist Langdon St. Ives. Langdon has featured in earlier books written by James P. Blaylock also as a main protagonist. I only came to know this after I finished The Aylesford Skull, but actually this was hardly noticeable throughout reading this book. I must admit that maybe the whole background of Langdon still remains a bit illusive and that I had to take it on the go that he was an explorer and scientist but I found that Langdon’s appearance in The Aylesford Skull did come to justice with enough elaboration about his quirky habits and his point of view and what he wants to achieve. On the whole take I have to say that The Aylesford Skull can be read as a solid stand alone.

The important part that moves the whole storyline along in the introduction and the adventure surrounding around Langdon’s nemesis Ignacio Narbondo. I have to guess that Langdon and Ignacio have faced-off a couple of times in the previous volumes because their relationship is rather heated. It is by the relationship between Langdon and Ignacio that The Aylesford Skull got a more classic, Victorian era setting in my opinion. I already got the feeling by the first singular introductions of both characters that they were portrayed as gentlemen, but by the somewhat explosive encounters and the equipment utilized by both parties the whole setting did come to fruition in the end. Giving me that classy high end feeling.

Another great part of the book is how James P. Blaylock used many different characters to drive the storyline forth, not just sticking with Langdon. The whole book revolves around the kidnapping of Langdon’s youngest son, the four year-old Eddie. In the first part of the book, where Langdon is searching high and low for his lost son, he meets up with different characters who are all willing to help him; like his wife Alice St. Ives, Mother Laswell, Bill Kraken and Langdon’s manservant Hasbro. But there was also another noteworthy introduction in the book and that was of Finn Conrad, who goes in search of Eddie because he feels responsible for what occurred. Do not think that all these characters were hastily added, no, as the story is progressing and the chapters switch from person to person you learn more about the backgrounds and motives that drive each character to their goal, and this allows you more than once to face an interesting surprise. And what I found particularly good about all these point of views is that they come together neatly as a whole in the ending of the book. Though this ending was rather short compared with the build-up of the book it was a spectacular ending to say the least. The ending did not fall short at all because for me looking back at the whole story, it could not have been better constructed. From start to finish a truly immaculate story. And I already noticed that Titan Books is publishing two more books in this series, and I got a feeling that though there is a solid ending, some nemeses never perish...

The Aylesford Skull is for me a piece of art. James P. Blaylock has created a truly magical story, where most authors who write steampunk go for a direction of a more bold and brash steampunk setting he takes on another route by writing a more or less common story but elevating it with hints of steampunk and a supernatural aspect into it. For me it is truly magnificent display of how to elevate a story to the next level. It is a great story fully accented by enough hints of steampunk and magic.


This review was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years [The Aylesford Skull, Titan Books, £7.99]. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.

Details about The Limited Edition (available Feb 2013)

750 signed and numbered editions:
Jacketed, cloth-bound hardcover with ribbon
Signed by James P. Blaylock
Exclusive foreword by K.W. Jeter and introduction by Tim Powers

26 signed and lettered editions:
As above encased in a custom-made traycase.

10/10 From start to finish a truly immaculate story.

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