Review & Feature: The Aylesford Skull

Aylesford SkullTHE AYLESFORD SKULL by James P. Blaylock

Titan Books, p/b, £7.99

Reviewed by David Brzeski

I broke one of my rules for this one. I generally hate to start a series anywhere but book one. I’m not even completely sure what number in the series this one is. The villain has appeared in at least one book without the hero, and I believe the hero is in at least three previous novels and several short stories. I had, however, accepted an actual print copy of this one for review, and to catch up on all the previously published material would’ve taken too long, especially as Titan Books don’t plan on reissuing the two previous Langdon St. Ives books they have on their schedule until one and two months respectively after this one. In any case I’m pleased to report that it isn’t necessary to have read the others to follow this one.

The first thing I noticed upon opening the book was that they’d printed the text in sepia. I’d have missed that clever detail on my Kindle. It sets the tone nicely.

James P. Blaylock is one of the literary pioneers of the Steampunk movement. Some would claim he pretty much invented that hybrid genre. Perhaps this explains why he is able to employ such a degree of subtlety to his steampunk world-building. Certainly this novel (I can’t speak for the others) is not overwhelmed by the trappings of Steampunk. There is an airship in the book, but it’s not employed until fairly late on and apart from a fascinating cross between steampunk technology and necromancy, employed by the villain Narbondo, that’s about it! The rest could pretty much take place in the real world of the late 19th Century.

It’s a fairly long book, with a lot of characters on both sides of the conflict, but I never found it less than gripping. In fact I sped through it in just two sittings. I especially enjoyed the way Blaylock split his heroes up and had them all working vaguely towards the same end, while having no clear idea where the others were, or what they were up to. Even so, he managed to keep a tight control on who was where and when, so that the action ties up properly in the end.

Scientist and explorer Langdon St. Ives is a pretty laid back sort of hero. He shrugs off an attempt by Narbondo to poison his entire family remarkably easily and doesn’t get really riled up until his four year-old son is kidnapped.

St. Ives’ son, Eddie is an unusually capable child for his age, adapting easily to strange situations and generally keeping his head. I can see that some readers would find that somewhat unrealistic. I found myself wondering if we weren’t witnessing the birth of a new hero, whose life might be explored further in books set at the turn of the Century (this one takes place in 1883) through the 1920s and 1930s?

Narbondo is deranged, as all such villains should be. His plot to overthrow the throne and government would leave even the likes of Fu Manchu speechless. Off-the wall doesn’t cover it!

I actually found the female characters generally more interesting than the males and would like to see more of Alice St. Ives and Mother Laswell. I feel they could even carry a book on their own, without the help of their menfolk.

The climactic scenes are spectacular to say the least, and I found it hard not to visualise it in terms of a Hollywood Blockbuster. The treatment given Sherlock Holmes in the Robert Downey Jr. movies would probably work much better (or at least offend fewer purists) with Langdon St. Ives as the male lead character.




A Note from the Author:

The following is a random collection of working notes taken from scores of pages of such notes that I wrote out when I was thinking through The Aylesford Skull.  Please be aware that they contain potential spoilers as well as a number of ideas, characters, and potential scenes that didn’t make it into the novel, and so might be puzzling to readers.  Hope you find them interesting.  Cheers, Jim Blaylock


The Aylesford Skull: Early Plot Notes

So St. Ives is moving into the new digs, perhaps outfitting a folly tower with an observatory roof.  He’s got Finn Conrad helping him out, taking care of the pygmy hippos (unless you really don’t want them, although I don’t see why not.  A couple three eccentricities, actually.  Something for Alice, too.  Also, figure out the kids.)  Finn likes his independent ways and is living in cottage near the tower.  St. Ives takes some morsel of food out there late one night, seeing that the light is on, and hears Finn talking to someone.  Curious, but not concerned, St. Ives knocks, after a pause Finn answers, but there’s no one else in the room.  There had been two distinct voices, a conversation, not a monologue.  Perhaps St. Ives had heard something curious/worrisome, not from Finn but from the other.  St. Ives is too much the gentleman to ask about it.  It’s odd that Finn would talk to himself.  Perhaps the boy is simply lonely, he thinks.  Perhaps he’s mad.  And yet if that were the case, St. Ives had never known a saner madman.  Later, maybe the next night, St. Ives is going out to look at the stars, wonderfully clear night, and he runs across a boy drawing a picture.  He sees the picture.  Boy vanishes.  Maybe he’s drawing something in the dirt with a stick, maybe with a piece of charcoal on paper or stone or whatever.  (Do you want to keep the picture or have it vanish with the boy?  Better, I think, that it vanish with the boy.)  St. Ives is shaken to his rational core.  Could be now that he goes over to meet the neighbors.  Could be he goes back to meet the neighbors again.  The neighbors aren’t forthcoming, although the old woman could throw the fact in his face that maybe he heard a ghost speaking.  St. Ives would point out the unlikelihood: vocal chords, after all.  “Scientists!” she says with an oath.  Etc.

  1. The skull and the back story: Who was the old Necromancer?  He took the woman and bastard child N out of the Limehouse garret, married the woman, who bore him a child.  (He might be N’s father’s brother.  Cain (N) being the progeny of the snake in the garden; his actual father was not a good man, transported for grave robbing or something.  (Thus potentially ending up in the Borneo jungle.  If you’ve got something that would suggest he calcified, or was calcifying, at the time, then good.))  The Uncle isn’t a shining star, either.  He would suggest that the woman owes him a debt of gratitude, and that she’s the mother of a murderer.)   
  2. There’s the corpse, still warm.  The old man sets to work, the head or corpse on a plate or slab in bubbling fluid.  Bone saws, acid to clean the skull.  Secret laboratory someplace nearby in Kent.  N watches avidly.  “You might come to something some day if you attend,” his stepfather says.  Narbondo attends.  He learns about the revivification (old Chinese method) and hence will return years later to dig up his brother’s grave.  Days pass.
  3. So, N hangs his brother but makes it look like a suicide.  The father happens upon him (maybe N maliciously wants the father to find the body of his son and think that it’s a suicide; maybe he does think it’s a suicide, and only the girl knows the truth.  The father surprises N, however, by saying that out of this tragedy of death will come new life.  He’s particularly rational: the boy’s dead; there’s no virtue in sentiment.  He has N plant the knife and splash the blood.  The girl either caught N in the act of having murdered James, or she catches him in the act of covering it up.  And/or when she was with James yesterday, N threatened to murder them both.  She would know, of course, that James wouldn’t hang himself.  Maybe N pays a local youth to say he saw the whole thing: James was sitting on the limb of the tree, and leapt off.
  4. The mother wants the body of her son.  She fears that he’s dead (lots of blood) but they never found the body.  No doubt thrown into the river. She follows the old Necromancer to the laboratory and discovers the truth.  She bursts in and confronts him.  He’s doing his trick with the boy’s skull.  “You would use him this way?  Your own son?”  “He’s no longer my son.  He’s mere tissue – sinew and bone…”  “By God you murdered him yourself!  I see it in your eyes!”  “Look to your own progeny if it’s blame you’re casting, woman.  The deformity is in your own seed.”  She realizes what he’s talking about, and she knows it’s true.  There’s a face in the window, but it’s gone.  She goes nuts, tries to trash the place, and is interrupted by a banging on the door.  N has led the authorities (or the parson, or someone) to the old Necromancer’s lair.  He’s turning in his mother and father.
  5. Cain and Abel:  The simple story: Abel was a shepherd and Cain worked the land.  Abel offered up lambs to God and God was satisfied with the offering.  Cain offered up produce, and God was dissatisfied.  “Broccoli?!”  Cain lured Able into the woods and murdered him out of jealously.  Topspin: some stories suggest that Cain and Abel were half brothers, that Cain was the progeny of the Snake in the Garden, of Satan, essentially.  Hence the jealousy, and hence Cain’s so easily murdering his brother.  He’s tainted because of original sin.  Also, in some stories there’s the suggestion that wealth was involved – that Cain would inherit Abel’s flocks.   “And the Lord set a Mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.”  (Which would get him out from under the curse of wandering forever in the wilderness.)  (Blake’s “cold earth wanderer” in “The Mental Traveller”?  Maybe.  No use for it unless you want to quote from the poem.  St. Ives or someone could quote the poem.  Check out the poem to see if it would work, maybe here and there.)
  6. More Cain and Abel and Narbondo:  N’s deformity, at least in the mother’s eyes, might bethe mark of Cain.  The problem with that is that the deformity works better if N is already deformed, pre-murder.  Actually, not necessarily: he’s got the mark of Cain, in a sense, from the get-go: he’s fated to it.  His father would berate him with it.  “Even in death your brother is more useful to me than you are with that infernal hump!”  It’s also the source of his jealousy.  There might be a girl in the neighborhood who fancies the brother (in keeping with the jealousy bit).  To make Cain and Abel work here, the brother has to be a good boy.  The old Necromancer berates N, but sees this death as the result of the silver lining – lemonade out of lemons.  Find an appropriate saying.  Have him say it out loud, which will send his wife into a fury.
  7. Probably, in the laboratory the old woman should react by striking her husband or going berserk in some fashion.  She hides the skull, which is a good thing, because the authorities had better not find it and because she treasures it.  When they break into the laboratory (along with the Parson) they find her endeavoring to murder her husband.  She’s taken up by the authorities and condemned to transportation (her husband to death for vivisection on a human being).  The girl steps up and says that the old woman (actually a young woman) isn’t guilty of the murder, N is guilty.  But by now he’s flown.  (The girl saw the murder occur.)  The local parson (her brother?) intercedes (or something) and she lives on in the neighborhood condemned to house arrest, like Charles Lamb’s sister, but is thought to be a witch.  The bones are buried in the cemetery, and later she digs up the grave and puts the head in the coffin.
  8. For consistency’s sake, this posits that the woman was taken by the old Necromancer out of the garret apartment where, in LK’s Machine, St. Ives brings the penicillin.  If that’s the case, then N is the boy’s older half brother.  That will, of course, work.  N was 3 or 4 back then, when he and his mother lived in the Limehouse garret, so he could be 15 to his brother’s 12.  If the brother is 12, then Finn Conrad is a natural fit, and also the girl who witnesses the murder can be in love with the boy; 12 is plenty old enough.
  9. In the murder scene he can threaten the girl.  Coldly.  No passion at all except a flickering of a smile as he imagines doing it.
  10. A London scene underground, a bolt-hole to the sewer, the bellows, the steamworks.  Maybe N tapped into an existing steamworks.  That way the sound of the engine wouldn’t be odd.
  11. Do we want to show more Narbondo?  Does he kill rats for pleasure?  Frequent houses of ill repute?  Maybe even at 15 as well as later in London?  Why not?  He gets his own viewpoint scenes, or perhaps objective pov.  Or not.
  12. Keep considering the Trismegistus Club, Rupert Street, Soho.  Why not a secret organization?   You like the idea of it.  On the other hand, remember that no one who reads your book will care about those characters: Theophilus Goddall might be merely a cipher, seemingly random.  You’d want to say who he really is, but if you do that, perhaps you’ll have to go whole hog and give him and Geraldine a part in the novel.  Do you want that?  As soon as it comes to you how they’ll fit, then you’ll know they’re a fit.  Meantime, they’re a sideline, and you can’t fit a sideline into things until you know more clearly what “fits” means.
  13. Use the headless boy as a viewpoint character?  How?  Is he purely objective?
  14. You’ve got several significant female characters: Nell Owlesby, Alice, Dorothy and…?  They might form a “walking society” or  something that becomes an equivalent of the Trismegistus Club.  In other words, instead of Alice working along, she’s part of a group.  If that’s the case then maybe you do want “clubs” or “societies” or whatever.
  15. You can use the Alice Society if something happens there.  In other words, if the action moves on to London, then the Society doesn’t matter all that much beyond the opening scenes.  If something is left behind: if Narbondo must return to North Kent to retrieve something further (something from the old laboratory, from the grave, whatever, then the Society/Kraken/Alice can be players once again.  Or maybe the old woman (who after all is Narbondo’s mother) finds something in a drawer, or remembers something, or whatever, then all of a sudden the Society might come back into play.
  16. The dead boy’s pictures are slashy and rough and hasty and labored.  There’s an air of desperation to them, as if he’s very much upset.  He should, probably, be interested in finding his head.  But check with John about this: make sure it’s not in the Harry Potter books.  You can have a headless boy, but it can’t be entirely comical and it can’t be derivative.


This article 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.

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