HOMUNCULUS and LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE, the first two books in James P. Blaylock’s series surrounding Langdon St. Ives, have been re-released in handsome new editions that have the words “STEAMPUNK LEGEND” emblazoned beneath the author’s name, and above generic cover art that has nothing to do with what’s in the books.
I didn’t know if this accolade meant anything real until I took a look at the back of HOMUNCULUS, which has a blurb from Philip K. Fucking Dick.
I quickly learned that Blaylock was amongst the first authors to be labeled “steampunk” at all, which I took as a good sign. Steampunk can often be exhilarating and fresh but, like any other genre delineated largely by its imagery, it can also bury itself under a pile of signifiers that don’t mean anything.
The world of Blaylock’s books feels fresh in large part because it is actually less invented than many steampunk stories to come later: the London of Langdon St. Ives is, for the most part, 19th-century London, but with things just slightly off, and our scientist hero St. Ives sometimes interacts with real people (which I suppose the title LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE already suggests).
HOMUNCULUS even begins with the most classic of steampunk imagery: an airship flying over London. But this ship is extremely creepy, piloted by a skeleton, and very mysterious, scaring the hell out of everyone who sees it. It all works because Blaylock is absolutely a master of atmosphere.
Clarity, however, can suffer: I’m honestly not sure I can summarize the plot to 1986’s HOMUNCULUS. There are three or four MacGuffin boxes that float around from person to person. Most of these boxes look the same, and I was never sure how any of them came to contain the Very Important Plot Devices hidden inside.
What’s more, most every character in the novel has a fascinating quirk or hook, but really only one of them, a sad sack named Bill Kraken, felt like a compelling human being. Thankfully, ol’ Bill is all over that book, and brings some much needed pathos to the proceedings.
HOMUNCULUS is an entertaining ride through a bizarre London that feels fresh even now, when we’re at full steampunk capacity, but the causes and consequences of its events — or indeed what they even are — are seldom clear enough to keep a reader moving forward for any reason besides the setting.
HOMUNCULUS also falls a little too far into 19th-century story tropes when it makes its villain an evil hunchback named Ignacio Narbondo, by far the most “ethnic” sounding name in the entire work — a little strange.
Narbondo is, apparently, a major through-line of the series, and his actions play an even larger part in the events of 1992’s superior LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE when he begins it (and considering this happens in a prologue titled “Murder in the Seven Dials,” I don’t think this is much of a spoiler) by killing the love of St. Ives’ life, Alice.
This gives LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE far more of an emotional hook than the first book has, and humanizes St. Ives remarkably. Although, the fact that we never learn a thing about who Alice was — besides that she kept a nice garden — or why St. Ives loved her is one of MACHINE’S biggest flaws, by far.
MACHINE features a St. Ives who is both directionless and single-minded in his attempts to track down Narbondo. It’s a tricky balance that Blaylock pulls off, and nowhere better than in the middle section, when the third-person narrative breaks apart to make space for a supporting character’s first-person account of events.
Seeing St. Ives — and all the strange machinations of the plot — through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand where the hero’s head is, or why anything is happening, improves the character work. It also breathes even more life into the world that these books inhabit and, paradoxically, forces the story to make a lot more sense.
Unfortunately, the last part of LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE is spent entirely in St. Ives’ point of view and concerns itself with time travel. It’s in this, which should be the most emotionally resonant part of the novel, that the problems I had with HOMUNCULUS pop back up. Essentially, what’s actually going on is muddied by events folding onto themselves and prose flourishes.
Time travel is always a tricky thing, and to make it work right, the rules of time travel in a given story have to be made extremely clear. On top of that, when it’s in prose, where visual cues can’t be used, the different temporal versions of a character or place need to be delineated very clearly, or left vague in a way that feels intentional.
There are parts of the last third of MACHINE that are fascinating and affecting. There are events that turn normal story structure and time travel conventions onto their heads in extremely satisfying ways, but they’re lost when the larger story’s framework stops making sense.
Even so, both HOMUNCULUS and LORD KELVIN’S MACHINE are unerringly clear and vivid in their setting, and often wittily acerbic in their prose. The slightly sideways Earth of Langdon St. Ives feels very lived in, and strangely comforting, so I never really got tired of exploring it. I can only imagine how it must have felt to spend time there when these books were new. —Elijah Kinch Spector