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Review: Homunculus by James P. Blaylock

Posted: 21/02/2013 10:18

This would have made a great graphic novel, but as a work of fiction, it falls apart at the seams. Homunculus reads like a mash-up of other better books and stories - notably Patrick Suskind's Perfume, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the work of Charles Dickens, with a nod to Quentin Tarantino and British TV shows such as Dr Who. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a strange airship which materialises over London at the end of the nineteenth century. Millionaire Kelso Drake is determined to get his hands on the plans of a spacecraft engineered by Langdon St Ives, though we are not sure why. And that's pretty much it. The characters, including ropey evangelist Shiloh and a pair of fiendish graverobbers, circle each other for 300-plus pages before an anticlimactic showdown on Hampstead Heath. The Homunculus of the title has little bearing on the story, except to carry a rather weak sub-plot concerning mistaken identity.

As a Londoner born and bred, I found Blaylock's view of Merry Olde England (complete with bangers and peapots) curious to say the least. He appears to have gotten carried away with his research, throwing in London street names and locations with abandon. Take this: "The portly man tapped along, highly satisfied with the day's adventure. He entered Rupert Street, Soho, and disappeared into the open doorway of the Bohemian Cigar Divan..." Or this: "Willis Pule admired himself in the window of the bun shop on King Street."

By American standards, central London may be small, but Blaylock has his characters criss-crossing the capital as though they were merely crossing the street, with little acknowledgement of the difficulty of travelling in 1875.

Born in 1950, Blaylock is clearly a man of his generation. Women hardly figure in his story. Indeed, the only significant female character, Dorothy Keeble, doesn't make an appearance until some fifty pages into the book, and then doesn't really have much to do except be the object of male attention.

When I read that Philip K Dick was Blaylock's mentor, my expectations were high. But I found Homunculus so disappointing, I will not be reading any more of his work. This is one for steam-punk devotees only.

Homunculus by James P. Blaylock (Titan Books) is available from Amazon.co.uk

 

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