James Blaylock is good friends with Tim Powers; he and a few other younger authors were mentored by the late Philip K. Dick. Born in Long Beach and educated at CSU Fullerton, he currently teaches creative writing at Chapman University. Some years ago, Mr. Blaylock created the Sherlock-Holmes-like character of Dr. Langdon St. Ives, and wrote several short stories and two novels — Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine — involving him and his exploits. These two, plus the short stories, are all available in the Subterranean Press omnibus The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives (which I intend to review eventually). This volume is apparently the first new Langdon St. Ives story in many years, and it will be published in July of 2009.
Langdon St. Ives is known as a collector of curiosities, and when a curiosity-shop owner finds a map supposedly drawn by Bill Cuttle, an old companion of Dr. St. Ives’s, he immediately contacts St. Ives’s people. The map is apparently in high demand; it is stolen (or so they think) before St. Ives and his faithful narrator, Jack Owlesby, can get there. Except fortunately the shop-owner made a fake for St. Ives’s arch-nemesis to steal, and armed with the original, St. Ives and Owlesby go searching for the treasure at the end — whatever it quite is.
This is steampunk of the highest order, and was written in a pseudo-Victorian style containing a good deal of humor. When one of the major events of the book is a field full of flying cows, one is generally expecting other absurdities to follow. That having been said, it’s only a little over a hundred pages long, and contains a great deal of movement, action, excitement, danger, and science (imagine that last said in a Julius Sumner Miller voice). Some characters are trustworthy, some are not; some turn out to be somewhere in between. For example, they send an acrobat-type street boy out to buy food, giving him more money than necessary, and he complains to them that they shouldn’t have, because this isn’t the best of neighborhoods.
Probably my favorite part of the book was when they use a bathysphere (or something like it) to go down to the bottom of a quicksand trap. This scene has a lot of drama because, well, it’s quicksand, and most readers have seen enough movies involving quicksand to be frightened of it, even if we’ve never seen it in person. St. Ives and Owlesby are depending on a piece of equipment that most readers consider antiquated at best and not terribly trustworthy in any case, and they’ve got a short time frame due to oxygen. Of course, the scene turns out a bit differently than we’re expecting, but overall, it’s actually a bit frightening.
I’d read most of the St. Ives short stories prior to reading this, and I think some knowledge of Langdon St. Ives, his general time period, and his relationship with Ignacio Nardondo (or whatever he’s calling himself) is necessary to understand this book fully. I’m not even sure this would be a good introduction, even if one is planning on reading the rest of the books and stories. Fans of the St. Ives books will definitely be interested in reading this volume, slim though it is, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I am not entirely sure that this is the best place to start. The Langdon St. Ives omnibus, while daunting and in a remarkably tiny font, would probably be a better choice. I do highly recommend this story, though. 4.5/5 stars.