Sunday, 26 December 2010


Bryan Talbot
Jonathan Cape
Grandville is set in a steampunk world, featuring steam powered motor vehicles, air transport, robots (known as "automatons"), telephones (known as "voicepipes") and televisions. In this world, Britain lost the Napoleonic War and was invaded by France. The British Royal Family were guillotined. Britain was later given independence from the French Empire following "a prolonged campaign of civil disobedience and anarchist bombings." Following independence, Britain became "The Socialist Republic of Britain". 23 years later, Britain is linked to the French Empire by the Channel railway bridge, and Paris is the biggest city in the world, known by the nickname of "Grandville". In Britain the English language is only spoken in rural communities, with the main language spoken in the country being French. The vast population in Grandville are anthropomorphic animals. Humans do exist, however. Having evolved in Angoulême, they are referred to by the French as "doughfaces", have never gained citizens' rights, and are considered menial workers. They are not allowed passports and so have never made it to Britain. The main characters in the series are Detective Inspector Archibald "Archie" LeBrock, a large, heavily-built badger; and his assistant Detective Roderick Ratzi, a monocle-wearing rat.

Brian Talbot has long been a favourite here. I'll get around to reviewing some of his related earlier work (the 2 Luther Arkwright books) at a later date. In the meantime here is the first of his series of anthropomorphic steampunk books - the very wonderful Grandville.

This first Grandville book concerns LeBrock and Ratzi's attempt to investigate the murder of a British diplomat. The investigation leads them to Grandville where they find themselves involved in a plot bigger than they could ever have imagined.

Anyone who has followed Talbot though the years will know that he is a consummate storyteller in both word and image. His plots are tight and plausible, his characters utterly human (or in this case, animal) and his illustrations perfectly paced and beautifully executed with a warmth to the art that radiates from the pages. The world of Grandville is sumptuously illustrated and beautifully reflects the opulence of the city with the world at it's feet. The technology is interwoven into both the storyworld and the narrative with seamless ease and in LeBrock and Ratzi we have two characters who are compulsive viewing. Ratzi in particular has become a firm favourite.

Even with all this going for it Grandville is a hard sell. Growing up reading comics funny animal books were always a particular dislike of mine and that view hasn't changed. Even knowing I would love what was inside it took me a small while to invest the necessary readies and take the plunge into it's covers. I'm certain I'm not the only one who shares this reticence for anthropomorphism. It is however a reticence that is worth putting aside (at least in the case of Grandville) as one soon forgets about the furry / scaly / hairyness of the participants and is swept along in the wake of a cracking whodunit.

Grandville really is something wonderful and worth both your time and your money.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation

George Mann

Welcome to the bizarre and dangerous world of Victorian London, a city teetering on the edge of revolution. Its people are ushering in a new era of technology, dazzled each day by new inventions. Airships soar in the skies over the city, whilst ground trains rumble through the streets and clockwork automatons are programmed to carry out menial tasks in the offices of lawyers, policemen and journalists. But beneath this shiny veneer of progress lurks a sinister side. For this is also a world where lycanthropy is a rampant disease that plagues the dirty whorehouses of Whitechapel, where poltergeist infestations create havoc in old country seats, where cadavers can rise from the dead and where nobody ever goes near the Natural History Museum.

Inside this beautiful cover lies a rather nifty little romp featuring gentleman investigator Sir Maurice Newbury along with his new assistant Miss Veronica Hobbes and his close friend Chief Inspector Sir Charles Bainbridge. In this first novel in the series Newbury sets his sights on unravelling the cause of a mysterious airship crash. Around this main strand there are a number of intriguing subplots (the zombies particularly) that are left maddeningly undeveloped as they fade from view over the course of the book. One can only imagine that they'll play a stronger part in later books in the series - although not it seems in book 2.

Mann has a lively and engaging style that is a joy to read. The world he has created is plausible with the new technologies still, for the most part, emerging and finding acceptance amongst the inhabitants. This small concession gives the storyworld a solidity that can be lost in those books that rush to fill the world with new techno marvels. The characters follow fairly established tropes but this is genre writing they're kinda meant to and besides they are fleshed out nicely and soon find their own identities within the story.

The Affinity Bridge is fast, fun and frivolous with a real 'Boy's Own' playfulness. Full of spiffingly brave and honest chaps (and a chapess) that battle doggedly against all manner of dastardly foes for the glory of her Britannic Majesty. It's great fun and like all good pulp writing utterly compulsive.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Burton & Swinburne in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder

It is 1861, and Albertian Britain is in the grip of conflicting forces. Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labour; Libertines oppose restrictive and unjust laws and flood the country with propaganda demanding a society based on beauty and creativity; while The Rakes push the boundaries of human behaviour to the limits with magic, sexuality, drugs and anarchy. Returning from his failed expedition to find the source of the Nile, explorer, linguist, scholar and swordsman Sir Richard Francis Burton finds himself sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, employs him as 'King's Spy.' His first mission: to investigate the sexual assaults committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack; to find out why chimney sweeps are being kidnapped by half-man, half-dog creatures; and to discover the whereabouts of his badly injured former friend, John Hanning Speke. Accompanied by the diminutive and pain-loving poet, Algernon Swinburne, Burton's investigations lead him back to one of the defining events of the age: the brutal assassination of Queen Victoria in 1840; and the terrifying possibility that the world he inhabits shouldn't exist at all.

Quite frankly this novel turned out to be one of the best books it's been my pleasure to read in a very long time. For his debut novel Hodder takes that heaviest-weight of 19th century adventurers, Richard Burton, partners him with an obscure and largely unsung poet, Algernon Swinburne, and weaves them into a riveting romp through an irrevocably altered Victorian (now Albertian) period. The catalyst for this change and the unorthodox partnership is the mysterious Spring-Heeled Jack whose mythos has been seemlessly interwoven into the narrative.

Burton is a dynamo of energy and it's surprising that he has not been utilised more in fiction of this kind in the past. His real life adventures are audition enough to make his adoption of his role in the narrative utterly plausible. Swinburne's very obscurity for the reader (or at least this reader) allows him the opportunity to become anything Hodder desires of him.
The partnership are assigned a new role of secret investigators for the King in this brave new world of rampant technological and biological advances. Some of which are maybe a little too major for the sort of timelines hinted at but it all goes to serve the tale so I don't really care too much.

As a villain Jack offers much and the seamless way in which Hodder has woven the folktales surrounding this Victorian enigma into the story is an absolute joy. His presence augmented by the maniacal villainy of some other familiar historical faces whose fates, like Burton and Swinburne, have been irrevocably changed by this interloper.

As I said earlier, it's been a while since I enjoyed a book as much as this and that this is a debut novel is nothing short of astonishing. The recommendation on the front from Michael Moorcock (saying pretty much the same as I did in that last sentence) is very apt as it is he that is most brought to mind in Hodder's writing, the characters almost ooze a Moorcockian presence and solidity that enables them to utterly exist within the storyworld no matter how deranged. This is Hodder's baby though and he does have a voice that is very much his own and is both engaging and compulsive. He takes no shortcuts and never leaves the the reader to flounder in unnecessary world-building, wool gathering or naval gazing. The plot is tight, the characters well rounded and engaging and the setting is one I wish to visit again and again.

It's my understanding that the follow up (called, I believe, 'The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man') is on it's way and I for one cannot wait.