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Narbondo #7

The Aylesford Skull

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It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard.

In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit...

425 pages, Paperback

First published January 15, 2013

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About the author

James P. Blaylock

87 books256 followers
James Paul Blaylock is an American fantasy author. He is noted for his distinctive style. He writes in a humorous way: His characters never walk, they clump along, or when someone complains (in a flying machine) that flight is impossible, the other characters agree and show him why he's right.

He was born in Long Beach, California; studied English at California State University, Fullerton, receiving an M.A. in 1974; and lives in Orange, California, teaching creative writing at Chapman University. Many of his books are set in Orange County, California, and can more specifically be termed "fabulism" — that is, fantastic things happen in our present-day world, rather than in traditional fantasy, where the setting is often some other world. His works have also been categorized as magic realism.

He and his friends Tim Powers and K.W. Jeter were mentored by Philip K. Dick. Along with Powers he invented the poet William Ashbless. Blaylock and Powers have often collaborated with each other on writing stories, including The Better Boy, On Pirates, and The William Ashbless Memorial Cookbook.

Blaylock is also currently director of the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Orange County High School of the Arts, where Powers is Writer in Residence.

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5 stars
72 (18%)
4 stars
135 (35%)
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127 (33%)
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36 (9%)
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10 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 77 reviews
Profile Image for Kat  Hooper.
1,582 reviews395 followers
March 20, 2015
James P. Blaylock is most famous for being a protégé of Philip K. Dick and, along with his friends K.W. Jeter and Tim Powers, developing the steampunk genre of fantasy fiction in the 1980s. Blaylock’s most popular steampunk stories take place in Victorian England and feature gentleman inventor Langdon St. Ives and his archnemesis Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, a hunch-backed necromancer. The Aylesford Skull is considered to be the seventh installment of THE NARBONDO SERIES, though each of the LANGDON ST. IVES novels can stand alone.

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Profile Image for Otherwyrld.
570 reviews52 followers
March 30, 2013
It's odd that I haven't encountered James Blaylock before, despite my being a SF and Fantasy fan for nearly 40 years. Maybe it's because his output has been quite small in comparison to other authors, but it seems strange that his work has never come up on my radar despite labels describing him as one of the fathers of steampunk.

Having read this book, I'm not sure that I've actually missed very much. While I didn't dislike it, it never seemed to catch fire with me. The whole thing just plodded along until it finally dragged itself to it's inevitable climatic confrontation between hero and villain. The antagonists motives never seemed very clear, and the plot was so complicated and unwieldy that it seemed bound to failure. The protagonists never seemed to be in any great hurry, even when his own child was in mortal danger. There always seemed to be time to stop for a bite to eat and a nap.

As this was only the latest part of a series, maybe I would have benefited from reading earlier works. Other reviewers have said that this wasn't necessary, but at times the back story seemed to overwhelm the plot to the point where it became frustrating to read. At this point though, I don't feel particularly motivated to search out those earlier stories.
Profile Image for Garrett Calcaterra.
Author 19 books68 followers
April 20, 2017
The Aylesford Skull is Blaylock writing in vintage form. It's fast paced, witty steampunk from start to finish. The Aylesford Skull does have its dark plot turns, but the writing never gets too heavy, opting for thoughtful introspection with the characters rather than heavy-handed themes or allegory. All in all, a fantastic, fun read.
Profile Image for Gary.
327 reviews5 followers
August 10, 2013
Finished this book sometime ago but I've been busy finishing off our new board game 'Promised Land 1250-587 BC' and so have shirked my reviewing duties. I enjoyed this book immensely! Reading a new Blaylock book is like visiting a much loved friend you haven't seen for a long time. It's full of nostalgia for me as Homunculus was the first Blaylock I read many years ago and that set me tracking down all his books. This one reads easily and sets Langdon St Ives against his old nemesis Narbondo. Blaylock describes late 19th century England very well and the exploits of his cast of characters more than keep you amused and interested as the story unfolds. Anyone who loves Blaylock's writings will devour this one and those new to him should perhaps seek out the previous two Langdon St. Ives books first to maintain the continuity of the storyline.I loved it and am now ready for Blaylock's conspirator's new one - Tim Powers' Hide me among the Graves.
Profile Image for Neale.
185 reviews29 followers
February 10, 2014
A new entry in James Blaylock's steampunk sequence is a promise of great pleasure. I've given it a provisional four stars, because I get at least four stars worth of pleasure from the prospect of reading it. (Sometimes I think I get as much pleasure from the anticipation of reading a book as from actually reading it...)

Steampunk has become rather devalued as a brand in recent years - a ragbag of stale tropes and gimmicks for lazy fantasists (Lord save us from another bloody airship!) - but Blaylock was there from the start, and understands the genre better than most.

The particular charm of Blaylock's steampunk books, for me, is an aspect which ruins the genre in lesser hands. Contemporary steampunk, despite invariably being set in a fog-bound 19th century London, seems to be an essentially American phenomenon. In many cases, this makes it unconvincing, if not embarrassing - the literary equivalent of Dick van Dyke's cockney accent. But with Blaylock there is a curious and delicious sense of displacement between the Britishness of the books (filtered through a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson and others) and Blaylock's relaxed Californian temperament. It shouldn't work, but does.

Of course, Blaylock is a very good writer by any standards, one of the true heirs of Ray Bradbury and Steinbeck, and one of the best and truest writers about childhood: his fantasies and children’s books can be read not just in their own right, but as examples of the kind of books that the people in a James Blaylock novel would choose to read...
Profile Image for John Lawson.
Author 4 books20 followers
December 2, 2015
A mad man wants to blow stuff up and open a door to Hell. A renown investigator intervenes, so the mad man kidnaps his son. Fisticuffs ensue.

This is billed as "Steampunk". The cover touts the author as a "Steampunk Legend" and the fellow on the cover sports the requisite extra lenses and other sepia-hued doo-hickies. I've never read Steampunk, so I didn't know what to expect. But it was more than this book could offer. Beyond some mentions of magic (including aforementioned "door to Hell", which never really plays a part in the story) and a requisite airship, there was nothing to distinguish this book from a fairly typical 19th century period piece.

This book commits many sins, being boring one of worst of them, but I won't batter it further. However, one thing I found particularly amusing. Many of the characters exhibited a surprising disconnect between their emotional states and the crisis of the moment. For example, upon receiving news that her son has been captured by a homicidal maniac with designs of scooping his brains out of his skull, a mother absorbs this and then immediately returns to her plans for a picnic. Whaaaa?

I know the British have a reputation for maintaining their composure, but damn, that's cold. Maybe that's just how Steampunks roll.
Profile Image for Hugh Griffiths.
122 reviews
July 20, 2019
Maybe this makes more sense if you've read the rest of the story? I found the plot rambling and directionless, there didn't seem to be any real theme or meaning to anything, and the conclusion didn't resolve any of the issues.
The big thing that struck me is that steampunk is really built on nostalgia for the victorian age, which really whitewashes all the colonialism, brutality and rampant inequality, and I would really have hoped we've got beyond uncritical adventure novels about that by now.
Profile Image for Fred Hughes.
717 reviews48 followers
April 13, 2018
Couldn't really get engaged in this Steampunk novel. I like Steampunk as a genre and have read many books within it. It seems to be a fine balancing act when written and some authors get the balance and other don't.

Blaylock has written some good books in this genre but this isn't one of them
Profile Image for Tim Hicks.
1,457 reviews114 followers
September 18, 2013
Good story with faults.

First, the dialogue and setting are well done. The slightly clunky writing style is just right, too.

Some of the characters are good solid ones, and some are caricatures, but that's appropriate for the style.

But St. Ives isn't much of a character. He's almost a disembodied observer, and near the end when he (a) sheds a tear, and (b) flies the airship at last, I felt as if it was being done to round out his part.

The bad guy is so repulsive he made me think of Mike Myers or some of the more ludicrous Bond villains. One step short of "Nyah-hah-hah!" and in fact there may even have been one of those. But that's OK.

The bad guys' guns actually aren't of the Star Wars always-miss variety, but I never really worried for any of the good guys (especially the over-capable Finn). Again, that maybe suits the era.

The ending, which some called active and exciting, didn't work for me at all. The airship does THAT, and the bad guy is taken out THIS way? Oh, puh-leeze. Such a buildup for such a squib.

And the e-edition I read needs a copy editor. Plenty of typos, homophone errors, and "phosphorus" as a noun spelled correctly only once at the end.

Steampunk? Well, it talks about an airship a lot and actually flies it twice, but it's a stretch to call this a steampunk book.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,744 reviews35 followers
February 4, 2013
As an introduction to James P. Blaylock‘s body of work, it will have you hooked and looking for more. I truly enjoyed how the suspense built a little at a time in the beginning, and before long we were rolling at a high level of action, concerned for main characters, and itching to thwart Narbondo at every opportunity. Here Blaylock does a masterful job of revealing Narbondo’s past bit by bit, along with his current scheme so that the reader is left guessing the details to the end. We get the nitty gritty of foggy London, along with a paranormal aspect, as Narbondo is carrying around his half-brother’s skull, which he has turned into a spirit prison. Throw in an airship, some mechanical toys, and a few high-tech (for the time) weapons, and you also have that steampunk feel without it being overused.

Honestly, this book works fine as a stand alone even though one can tell that both the main protagonist (St. Ives) and antagonist (Narbondo) have pasts, both with each other and as separate entities.
31 reviews2 followers
February 14, 2013
Unlike ALL the other reviewers who has never read a Blaylock Novel until now, I have actually read all of his books. Even his cookbook!

(Why do they all say, that they haven't read his books until now? It's not something to be proud of? Maybe it's a joke. Of course they have read masterpieces like "All the Bells" and "The last Coin" and "Diggin Leviathan" and...)

Anyway. This is a book about characters in London 1883. London and the life in London is described in exciting and believable detail. We follow the exploits of a multitude of characters. Some straight, some crooked, some rich, some poor, some excentric, some with no personality whatsoever.

There is also some kind of evil plot by the arch-villain Ignacio Narbondo.

So far so good.

The reason I don't rate this a five-star novel is, that it is almost mainstream. The characters are almost people you could meet on the street. Yes, they still have quirks. But not in the amount, that an old fan like me are used to.
Profile Image for Janet.
286 reviews12 followers
March 15, 2013
I didn't realize this was a book in a series until after I'd already bought it. But it stands alone just fine. My complaint with the book was just the general plot plot plot nature of it. Each chapter was a character doing something without thinking or planning that either serendipitously worked out, or wound up not working and then they dejectedly moved on to the next random idea they had 3 chapters later. The arch nemesis was evil, because he was evil, and being evil is what he does, so he had no nuance or interest.

If you're looking for a Victorian-era novel that has a little bit of mystery, some airships, and a fight of good versus evil, this might be the book for you. I would recommend getting it for e-version however, because despite having a decent vocabulary, I do not have a strong command of old Victorian words, and the dictionary was pretty critical for me to get through this.
Profile Image for Sarah.
77 reviews4 followers
May 28, 2014
Without having read any of Blaylock's previous work, I jumped right into this and was thoroughly entertained. Great example of the Steampunk genre. My only gripe is the lack of female characters. The one's that did exist were either wives or mothers to the principal characters and didn't really contribute much to the story. It's kind of forgivable considering the time period the story is supposed to take place in, but still irksome.
Profile Image for Mark.
45 reviews
January 11, 2017
My first Blaylock book. Enjoyed it very much. Keeps you on the edge of your seat ready to read more. Looking forward to other St Ives tales
Profile Image for Stephen Holtman.
77 reviews
November 11, 2018
This book follows Langdon St Ives and his friends try to rescue his son and London from the nefarious deeds of Dr. Ignacio Narbondo. I felt that the way that the writers did a fantastic job of bringing the old school adventure feel to the fore front of the story. I also have to put in that the action was really exciting. I originally thought that it would be one of those PG type of adventures where nothing really happens. But thankfully I was wrong on that point. Another Misconception I had that I was thankfully proven wrong on was that at first it seemed like it was going to be another Sherlock holmes ripoff. This was instead a truly unique and stand aloneish type of thriller. The one thing that did kind of throw it off for me was the Mother Laswell\ Bill Kraken characters. I call it a thing because it was more like a mother son kind of relationship then an actual loving relationship. But there was a little bit of a nice touch to them individually that made them enjoyable by themselves. As for the portions of the story that features St Ives family, well they were kind of middle of the roadish. Those of you who have read some of my previous reviews know what I mean by that. For the ones who haven’t, you should probably ask the ones who have. My final Judgement on this adventure throwback is that it rightly deserves it’s four star review.
Profile Image for Roberta.
Author 2 books9 followers
April 14, 2019
This was an easy book to read, with the story pushing the reader forward, and a lot happening to keep one entertained. The world-building is quite good, though probably it would have felt richer if I had read the first six books in the series. The zeppelins and 'infernal devices' set it strongly within the steampunk tradition, and, as I understand from some quick background reading, James Blaylock is one of the most important figures when it comes to steampunk being established as a genre.
However, I have a number of personal gripes with the story. First, the constant see-sawing of the action between the good guys winning and losing and winning and losing gets tedious after the first half of the book. The characters themselves are not particularly likable, either. They are not unlikable but there is nothing to set them apart from each other, not much character-building at all, far too many predictable points in the plot and general lack of good conversation.
All that said, the book is not bad for fans of the genre or someone looking for a light steampunk read.
Profile Image for Dave-Brendon Burgh.
Author 13 books71 followers
January 28, 2013
Let’s get this out of the way first – I’ve never read any of James’ work, so I’ve never read a Langdon St. Ives story, and believe me when I say that you don’t have to have read anything by James prior to reading this book; in fact, you don’t even need an introduction to St Ives! This was very important for me, because I didn’t want to to feel as if I had missed great and important events while reading ‘The Aylesford Skull’, which I did, in essence, but it didn’t FEEL that way.

So, let’s get to the style of this novel, which is the first thing that grabbed me. All of the fiction I’ve read, speculative or otherwise, that’s been set a century or two in the past, has often struggled with how people spoke in those times – I mean, since we’re not able to time-travel there’s just no way that we could get it perfectly right anyway, is there? There’s no way for me to know, for a fact, if how the characters converse -what words they use, how they structure sentences, what level of grammar they have learned- is accurate or not. All we have to go on is books, right? Study the way that writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote and you could perhaps mimic that style of dialogue and description, right? Well, to me nothing in this novel, from the descriptions to the dialogue, felt mimicked, or copied. My reading experience of this novel was, to put it lightly, sublime – sentences, paragraphs and pages flowed past with practically no resistance, even though there’s plenty of words in this novel that we don’t hear much, if at all, today. Reading from day to day wasn’t jarring in the least – I never once felt as if I had to mentally prepare myself for a day’s reading.

Next up, St. Ives. Langdon isn’t the hero / protagonist you would expect; he’s not muscled or a genius, and he doesn’t have plenty of ladies fawning and falling all over him. So don’t expect a James Bond- or Indiana Jones-knock-off. He’s capable, sure, and what he does know he knows well, but like the normal man out on the street, he’s the type of guy who wants to live a quiet, relatively uneventful life, pursuing what his interests and making sure that his family is safe and that they have a relatively comfortable life. What sets him apart is his willingness to do everything he can when trouble strikes, as it invariably will and does. Then he becomes single-minded and, as often happens when someone is put in a difficult situation and has to focus intently to not lose their way, he makes mistakes. He’s not the perfect hero, or the perfect man, which leant a certain edge of surprise to this book – sometimes you just *know* what the hero is going to do and how he’s going to do it, but not in this novel.

Now to the antagonist – Ignacio Narbondo. Definitely one of the most enjoyable villains I’ve read in a long time! The man is highly intelligent, especially with people and how to read and manipulate them. He’s even more single-minded than St. Ives, more methodical and calculating, which is expected of a villain, but he brought a mixture of deviousness, flair, absolute casual brutality, and even humour (black as it was) to the story. I’m pretty sure I’d like him even more if I’d read the previous St Ives adventures.

The rest of the cast is satisfyingly large but not overwhelmingly so – there’s Alice (St. Ives’ wife), his son, Eddie, the St. Ives’ factotum (manservant) Hasbro, the young Finn Conrad, St. Ives’ long-time friend Tubby, Jack and Arthur Doyle (perked up at that, did you?), Mother Laswell, Bill Kraken, and even George (one of the men working for Narbondo); they each bring a different and believable mix of personalities to the novel, with different levels of education (and so different ways of speaking) and different action-levels (if I can put it that way). All of them were highly enjoyable and didn’t seem wasted in any of the chapters they appeared in, nor did their presence overwhelm any of the scenes :-)

The novel’s plot ticked along like perfectly-tuned clockwork – except when the move towards the climax began, because then it kicked into high speed, so much so that the last hundred-or-so pages raced by. There was a bit of everything in this novel – explosions, hand-to-hand combat, knife fights, gun battles, chases, and tension a-plenty so that even when I knew that the hero, St. Ives, would win through (I mean, he’s the hero, of course he has to, doesn’t he?) there were a whole fistful of chapters in which I thought, “Sir, you are going to die painfully!”. James managed to play with my expectations beautifully, and there wasn’t a single time that I was right in forecasting what was going to happen. Oh, and you’ll have to read the novel to get any idea of the supernatural element, because the only thing I’ll say is that it was cool and unique and I really liked how it was done.

I really and truly enjoyed this novel – not only was it a great break from the Horror, SF and Fantasy I’ve been reading (which includes both novels and comics), but it reminded me once again that I don’t need mind-bending SF concepts, creeping, grisly, shocking or twisted Horror, or even the awesome magic-systems or world-building of Fantasy to really enjoy a novel. ‘The Aylesford Skull’ was incredible old-school fun, a gripping adventure that dealt with subjects such as family, friendship, the dark side of human nature, the lengths we’ll go to protect our own, and the uniqueness of those we see as evil or bad – sometimes someone doesn’t have to be insane to be the bad guy; sometimes curiosity is enough.

Huge thanks to Sophie Calder for sending me ‘The Aylesford Skull’ – really enjoyed this novel and I’ll definitely get what I can of James Blaylock’s other works – highly recommended!
Profile Image for Thaydra.
325 reviews9 followers
May 11, 2021
I love the steampunk genre, but have never actually read it before. I really wanted to love this book, but I didn't. I found it very difficult to get through. I felt like there was no depth to any of the characters, and they seemed to have no emotion despite highly traumatic events. Even the villain felt flat. Maybe if I had read the previous books in the series I would have had more background to them and felt for them more.

This book IS readable without having read the others. I could follow along well enough. I just didn't care.
Profile Image for Monica Bond-Lamberty.
1,335 reviews4 followers
February 11, 2017
I liked this read, and paused my day today to read it, but couldn't bring myself to give it more stars. Some of the characters (Narbondo) seem a little caracturist and wasn't particularly drawn to read anymore in these series.
Also troubled by historical fiction that includes some patently ahistorical events and leans more to steampunk without steampunk's fun.
Profile Image for Kerry.
727 reviews1 follower
July 11, 2017
Published 2016. Somewhat entertaining with the British stiff upper lip firmly in place. Curious to me was that the character Finn seemed more interesting than St.Ives as a protagonist. The steampunk science involved was good enough. The plot somewhat standard was well paced.
Profile Image for Anna.
70 reviews15 followers
February 2, 2013
I received a free copy of 'The Aylesford Skull' from the publisher through a giveaway on Goodreads.com.

Although this is actually the seventh novel in the 'Langdon St Ives' series, it is the first of James P Blaylock's novels that I've come across. It is also the first full length Steampunk novel I've read.

Under usual circumstances, I would never consider reading a novel that far into a series when I haven't read all of the previous instalments. However, I was just so intrigued by the premise of this book that I couldn't resist. The blurb proclaimed

It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives - brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer - is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives.

When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit...

Who could resist that kind of plot? Not me. So I got stuck in, determined not to let the fact that I had no prior knowledge of the characters taint my reading. And I'm glad I did. I can honestly say that you don't need to know anything at all about St Ives or his nemesis Narbondo before you open the book. Everything you need to know you can pick up in the pages of 'The Aylesford Skull'. Important plot points from previous novels are referenced well, without going into overly-done flashback mode and I really didn't feel as though I'd missed out on too much background information.

The action began immediately and it sucked me straight into the world of Langdon St Ives, the hero of the novel. St Ives is an interesting hero. He's a typical Victorian gentleman with a not so typical talent for solving mysteries and averting crimes. He's attempting to live a comfortable and relaxing life in Aylesford with his wife and two young children. But as you might expect, things don't go according to plan when St Ives old nemesis Dr Ignacio Narbondo arrives on the scene.

I hate to admit it, but Narbondo, the perfect villain might just be my favourite character in the novel. He is so perfectly evil and dedicated to his dark ways that he fascinated me. Blaylock certainly knows how to write a villain and the hunchbacked doctor keeps coming into my mind even days after closing the book. For me, that's always a sign of good storytelling.

The novel itself was beautifully written, stylistically flawless and full of intricate details that really make the reading experience special. The novel moved at a steady pace, the plot moving forward without any slumps. And then when the climax began to come into sight, I began to turn the pages faster, the chapters coming and going before my eyes at a much faster pace. The momentum increased to match the level of action and I flew through probably the last third of the book in a day. An ending like that, one that fires up and keeps you guessing with its plot twists and suspense-inspiring characterisation is such a rare treat that I was sad to turn the final page.

The rest of Blaylock's Langdon St Ives novels are now on my Wish List. I need another dose of Blaylock's Steampunk London. A definite recommendation to anybody who loves Sci-fi or historical fiction.
Profile Image for Victor Gentile.
2,035 reviews52 followers
January 16, 2013
James P. Blaylock in his new book, “The Aylesford Skull” a new book in Tale of Langdon St. Ives series published by Titan Books gives us the first new steampunk novel in over twenty years from one of the genre’s founding fathers!

From the back cover: It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives – brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer – is at home in Aylesford with his family. However, a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay; the crew murdered and pitched overboard.

In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives.

When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race to London in pursuit…

If you like science fiction then this book is for you. I have to admit I do not know much about this genre “Steampunk” however I do know and enjoy Jules Verne stories and Mr. Blaylock has captured quite a bit of what Mr. Verne used to put in his stories. What I am reminded of is “Master of the World” by Mr. Verne with his airship because Langdon St. Ives has an airship that he uses as we use a car. “The Aylesford Skull” is my first Langdon St. Ives thriller but I guarantee you this will not be my last. I like this character a lot and he kinda has a Sherlock Holmes atmosphere about him. Mr. Blaylock has given us a rip-rousing adventure yarn that will grab your attention and keep you flipping pages as fast as you can read them. A partial list of ingredients within “The Aylesford Skull” are a pirate attack, grave robbing, murder, a bombing, a chase in the sewers and an airship over London. This is an exciting book and I am sure you will enjoy this book as well.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Titan Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Profile Image for Cobwebby Eldritch Reading Reindeer .
5,030 reviews260 followers
January 26, 2013
Reviewing for Hearts on Fire Reviews:

Author: James P. Blaylock
Title: The Aylesford Skull (A Tale of Langston St. Ives)
Reviewed by: Mallory Heart Reviews
Publisher: Titan Books
Genre: Historical/Steampunk
ISBN 13: 97808576818

Review: My first introduction to the work of one of the “Fathers of Steampunk,” James P. Blaylock, instantly made me a converted fan. Mr. Blaylock’s writing is both exceptional and accomplished, polished and exciting, intriguing and well-characterised. “The Aylesford Skull” is but one of several entries in Mr. Blaylock’s “Tales of Langdon St. Ives.” St. Ives is a conundrum: at times daring adventurer and private detective of sorts; at times devoted family man and husband, dedicated to his beloved wife Alice and to his much-loved children, Cleo and Eddie. But his past is such that his path is inevitably tangled once again with long-time nemesis, the self-named Dr. Ignacius Narbondo, who is about as attuned a practitioner of evil as one is likely to encounter in fiction (perhaps even more evil than Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, if such a thing is possible).

Narbondo was once the elder son of Harriet Laswell, but he was scarcely out of toddlerhood before he commenced to develop his evolution as a bad seed, and after the death of his father and his mother’s marriage to his father’s brother, another self-centered and arrogantly evil individual, the future Narbondo gained training in vivisection, resurrectionism, and arcane magick. He seems unstoppable, and he is determined apparently to open an avenue into the lands of the dead, using a “magic mirror,” a construction of mirrors set inside a skull which brings forth both the ghost whose skull it is, and also opens paths to the dead realm. He is not one to converse with ghosts; he desires the power of such a wide-open avenue between realms. When Narbondo kidnaps Eddie St. Ives, he triggers the wrath of Langdon St. Ives, who will move heaven and earth to bring his son home, alive and safely.

“The Aylesford Skull” is exceptional on so many levels: historical, Steampunk, magick, Spiritualism, and its purely excellent writing, vivid imagery, and great characterizations. Author Blaylock populates his stage with dozens of well-drawn characters, major and minor alike. I anticipate with glee further releases of this series from Titan Books.

2 reviews
July 25, 2013
The Aylesford Skull, James P. Blaylock’s latest entry in the tales of Professor Langdon St. Ives, starts off with a stolen barge of coal and continues with a bang that destroys the Bayswater Club’s greenhouse. Blaylock’s tale slows a little bit from there on, but only to introduce the wickedness of Dr. Ignacio Narbondo once again — whom fans of the St. Ives tales will recognize as the eccentric professor’s great nemesis.

This time though, Narbondo kidnaps Eddie St. Ives from the family farm in Aylesford with the aim of killing him to create a terrible lantern that traps a dead person’s ghost inside a bleached skull. This is the first steampunk tale that Blaylock’s written since 1992′s Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. The “Steampunk Legend,” as he’s proclaimed on the cover, takes readers from Egypt Bay to the darkest parts of London as St. Ives quests to rescue his son and end Narbondo’s evil ways once and for all.

Perhaps the most salient point of the tale is the sheer number of people arrayed against Narbondo. His own mother, in fact, allies herself St. Ives and his wife Alice. They’re also aided by a young man named Arthur Conan Doyle, who shares a mutual friend with St. Ives in one Joseph Bell. (Dr. Joseph Bell is widely regarded as the basis of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s long-lived character.)

About the only thing that bothered me was the sheer number of times Eddie escaped and was recaptured. By page 364, he had already escaped and been caught again twice, for a total of three occasions that Narbondo held him captive. Overall though, the story moved at a good, languid clip,

This is an easy book to pick up and put down at will; it also serves as a solid introduction into steampunk as Blaylock keeps a light touch with his more fantastical elements. About the only ostensibly steampunk thing is the airship that St. Ives plans to build and install at the Aylesford farm he and Alice share with the children. I give it a solid 4 out of 5.

The Aylesford Skull (Titan Books, $14.95) can be found at Titan’s website or wherever fine books are sold.
Profile Image for Jeffery.
Author 9 books15 followers
January 21, 2013
I had come across the name James P. Blaylock several times in my reading, usually associated with Tim Powers, usually connected to the emergence of Steampunk. I had always meant to get around to checking him out, and now I can say I'm sorry I waited so long.

James P. Blaylock's The Aylesfore Skull, to me, was more of a throwback to pulp's thrilling adventures than the steampunk it claims to be. Gadgetry and airships were a part of that tradtion long before folks at sf conventions started wearing pith helmets. That begin said, I really, really enjoyed this book. From the mysterious prologue to the mad dash of a plot that followed, the story constantly rushed forward. Things would slow down just enough to tease my curiousity once more before another mad dash would set forth. I enjoyed the steampunk elements, but they never got in the way of the story, which can happen in so many books labled as "the newest epic in the xxxx-subgenre."

I did happen to glance upon a review that didn't like Blaylock's characterization, claiming it tended to be shallow. I disagree. I knew enough about Langdon St. Ives (think part Sherlock Holmes, part Professor Challenger) to want him to thwart the evil plans of Dr. Narbondo. Again, following in the pulp tradition, you're not going to find any Hamlets running around London in these types of stories. When the protagonist was thinking back to a previous adventure in the first chapter, I knew this had to be a series character. One look on Amazon confirmed as much. To find the deeper St. Ives, perhaps one needs to read more of his earlier adventures. I'm sure you'd find some interesting tales and tangents, but what is in this volume serves. Everything in here works as a stand-alone yarn.

One of the great joys to me of this book was Blaylock's writing. The prose often reminded me of the best of those turn of the century writers. It was elegant and refined but never stuffy and awkward. He is defintely a writer I will be following in the future, just as St. Ives is a character I definitely want to revist.

Profile Image for Chris Branch.
552 reviews16 followers
April 18, 2014
As usual, Blaylock's command of language is brilliantly clever and reading any of his books is a unique experience. The eccentric cast of characters is another constant positive with his writing, and that's certainly in evidence here.

However, I'm forced to admit that I didn't enjoy this book as much as I'd hoped. There are a number of possible reasons: it could be that as eccentric as the characters are, they've become less interesting to me as they reappear in subsequent books (or new characters appear with eccentricities so similar to those of previous characters that they've become commonplace). Or it could be that I was less impressed with the supernatural aspect of this book. Blaylock's treatment of such things is generally masterfully subtle and brings with it a hint of the wondrous - but Narbondo's ghost skull obsession was, for me, a bit too clumsy compared to my expectations, and I'm afraid I still wasn't clear in the end exactly what part it was supposed to play in his grander scheme. Likewise, the outlandish steampunk aspects are less prevalent here - if only St. Ives' plan involving the elephant could have been worked into the events of the story instead of just peripheral! In fact, the plot in general was a bit slow for my liking, with too many occurrences of characters meeting in a pub to decide upon the best course of action. And finally, the tone was more grim and gloomy than I've come to expect from Blaylock, with the kidnapping aspect and Narbondo's anarchic terrorism overshadowing the story and draining much of the fun from the antics of the protagonists.

In spite of these issues, I still found it to be a solid entry in the St. Ives series. In particular, I enjoyed the expert weaving of the separate paths taken by the characters as they diverged and reconverged unexpectedly, and also the expanded role played by Alice. The ending was suitably entertaining, with St. Ives and his airship stealing the scene.

Overall, then, I have to give it a mixed review: had hoped for more, but a worthy effort nonetheless.

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