Something to remember before diving into steampunk legend James P. Blaylock’s seminal genre piece Homunculus, is that Blaylock’s work is not cute. At first glance, of course, it looks cute, what with all the bumbling and the over-the-top Britishness of it all and the never-ending stream of elements that are simply fun.
But even at their most whimsical, Blaylock’s creations are not “cute”, nor are they harmless.
And this book is a case in point. On the surface, it’s all all Pickwick Papers to the nth, what with gentlemen adventurers stumbling over their own comically oversized shoes, over-earnest working class types, and a couple of MacGuffins more likely to produce guffaws than anything else.
Dig a little deeper, though, and the disturbing stuff comes out. The repeated theme of carp-napping seems hilarious until it’s made clear that the fish are being harvested for some rather nasty “scientific” purposes, including raising the dead. The imminent return of a long-wandering airship is occasion for a public holiday, but the man at the controls is long dead. The villains – a would-be mad scientist obsessing over his skin condition and a street corner preacher with an army of living dead and a scheme to flood London with counterfeit cash – seem ridiculous until the bodies start piling up.
And then, at the end of things, there’s the dreadful Professor Ignacio Narbondo, who seems comical up to the moment it’s made clear that he dines on live birds and has absolutely no compunction about murdering anyone who gets in his way.
Then there’s the fact that the book is dense. It starts with a dizzying in media res, featuring a large cast of characters doing utterly ridiculous things that they don’t take time to explain to the reader. Either you decide to go with the flow – and at some point around page 50 all of the talk about carp, puzzle boxes, jewels, airships, evil industrialists, and the tiny alien who lives inside one of the puzzle boxes makes sense, as Professor Langdon St. Ives – slightly less heroic in demeanor here than in later incarnations – and his worthy, if eccentric companions sort themselves out.
To summarize the plot would be, frankly, ludicrous. In part, this is because the plots – and there are multiples – are dizzyingly complex, and to try to summarize them would dilute the pleasure of the unraveling. And part of it is that the plots, ultimately, don’t matter. What’s important here is the sheer joy of the enormous cast of characters bouncing off one another, and the delightfully affected prose. These are nights “uncommonly full of severed heads” and mysterious intruders. To want to Get To The Point is to miss the point entirely; what matters is the gloriously overstuffed, occasionally distracted, generally well-meaning and always solicitous ride.
In the end, good triumphs, more or less. This isn’t a terribly shocking surprise, seeing as Homunculus is book 2 of the Narbondo series (which now numbers an even half-dozen). Titan Books deserves a great deal of praise for resurrecting the early books in the series in such handsome editions. No doubt they did so to take advantage of the burgeoning interest in steampunk, and if so, more power to them.
Anyone picking up Homunculus and looking for a purely lighthearted, inconsequential romp with occasional zeppelins, however, is in for a surprise. This is deeper stuff, and more complicated that it appears. For those willing to swim upstream for those first fifty pages, however, the rewards are immense.