In Review: Beneath London

I would consider this a Victorian light fantasy more than a Steampunk novel. Knowing this will probably make the book more enjoyable.

Beneath London by James P. Blaylock

Published by Titan Books, June 12, 2015. Paperback of 410 pages at $14.99.

The cover: The design of this cover is by and the imagery is credited to Shutterstock. Against a circular stone opening that displays the Victorian skyline, including a dirigible, Langdon St. Ives looks down at one of this electrical devices that will allow him to safely navigate his way beneath the Empire’s feet. The model dressed as St. Ives is sporting the required top hat and goggles to instantly place him in a Steampunk setting, but the device he’s holding is spectacular. I love the illumination coming off it and the dials and knobs — it’s perfect. The ink used for this image, and for all of the text, is not black but a tinted burnt rose to give it an aged appearance. Nicely done. Overall grade: A

The premise: From the back cover, “The collapse of the Victorian embankment uncovers a passage to an unknown realm beneath the city. Langdon St. Ives sets out to explore it, not knowing that a brilliant and wealthy psychopathic murderer is working to keep the underworld’s secrets hidden for reasons of his own. St. Ives and his stalwart friends investigate a string of ghastly crimes: the gruesome death of a witch, the kidnapping of a blind, psychic girl, and the grim horrors of a secret hospital where experiments in medical electricity and the development of human, vampiric fungi, serve the strange, murderous ends of perhaps St. Ives’s most dangerous nemesis yet.” This is a novel to feature St. Ives and his world, which I’ve never read, but based on this text I don’t think I’ll be lost in past deeds. I like stories set in the Victorian era, adventures in underground worlds, and pseudo-science gone wrong. This looks like a promising adventure. Overall grade: A 

The characters: There is a fairly large sized cast of characters in this novel, but I’ll only discuss the first encountered so as not to spoil others who later appear. Langdon St. Ives is the protagonist of this book. He’s a knowledgeable man and is also very clever. He’s initially trying to help with learning the identity of Sarah Wright’s killer. Sarah was labeled a witch by the locals and was found with her head missing. This search is put off when St. Ives decides to investigate the underworld that’s recently, and dramatically, been discovered. He’s put through the wringer underground, but his biggest test comes when he falls prey to the villain of the book. I found him to be a bland lead. Alice St. Ives is his wife and she’s a strong character when first introduced, but is quickly — sadly — put aside for others’ stories. Clara Wright is the blind daughter of Sarah. She has abilities greater than most, though they wouldn’t necessarily be considered supernatural like those of her mother. She is a very sympathetic character and has some good scenes, but is placed in the damsel in distress role, and is lessened because of this. Beaumont the dwarf was the scene stealer of the novel. He’s not the most honorable of characters but as the novel progresses his character changes; so much so that I consider him more of the lead character than St. Ives. I would love to read of any other adventures he might have. The villain of the novel is Klingheimer. His speech is very elevated, always seeming to be testing his audience with each word. This is a fantastic quality in a villain and every time he appeared he was the absolute focus of the scene. He enters the book quietly and grows tremendously. When he has his confrontation with St. Ives, as any good adventure must have, the dialogue between both characters is delicious. His plans aren’t against the world, but are much more devious. He was a wonderful creation. Overall grade: A- 

The settings: Victorian England, in an alternate history, that might be considered Steampunk, but barely puts its toe into that pool. This was somewhat disappointing to me. After seeing the cover image and having “Steampunk Legend” be emblazoned under the author’s name, I was expecting a much more mechanically inclined world, and this was more of a fantasy with elements of upgraded technology. The Steampunk elements come in a few gadgets in the opening three quarters of the book and only comes to the forefront when St. Ives is put in eminent peril by Klingheimer. Otherwise, the London of the surface world is described well with Blaylock expertly painting taverns, rural homes, and the dense housing of the city. Doubly disappointing is the underworld itself. It’s teased out when St. Ives is there, but is abandoned after one chapter, becoming a backdrop for the finale that plays second fiddle to a structure. I did not receive what I was expecting and it hurt my enjoyment of the novel. Overall grade: C 

The action: With so many characters they have to put through some adventures on their own before all joining together for the end. It wasn’t until Page 143 that the book had me rapidly turning pages. Before that, I was trudging through the text, hoping to be rewarded. I was, but it sure took a while. I thought the strongest action occurred with Beaumont, more so than St. Ives. So that put me in a odd state while I was reading, since I had assumed St. Ives to be the focal point of the book. Eventually he does meet with Klingheimer, but by then the book was practically over. The later action did redeem the sluggish opening, but it take some time getting somewhere. Overall grade: B

The conclusion: All characters have a fitting ending, with the villain’s being particularly just. Again, I would look forward to more from the “supporting” cast than St. Ives. Overall grade: A-

The final line: After finishing I really took some time processing what I had read. It wasn’t Steampunk enough for me and the lead character didn’t really seem like the lead. After the first third, the book was very readable and I enjoyed the secondaries and the villain greatly. I would consider this a Victorian light fantasy more than a Steampunk novel. Knowing this will probably make the book more enjoyable. Overall grade: B

Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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