Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder
Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon is the third and possibly final book in Mark Hodder’s steampunk/alternate history series starring Sir Richard Burton as the main protagonist, along with his good friend, the poet Algernon Swinburne. I was a fan of the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack, but far less enamored of the second and messier one, The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man. Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon falls somewhere in between the two, though major pacing issues tip it over a bit too much to the negative side.
The earlier books set up the basic premise, which is really too complex to get much into here. Basically, time is awry thanks to earlier events and history has gone off the track, barreling toward a World War fought not with guns but with horrifyingly strange weapons created by genetic engineering and eugenics: carnivorous mobile plants, giant walkers made of scooped-out biological organisms, and the like. The novel is told via two storylines. One finds a disoriented, amnesiac Burton at the end of the war, with the British Empire down to its last stronghold in Africa and about to lose that. In this time period, Burton meets a young reporter named Herbert Wells and as Burton slowly regains his memories, Wells helps him finish the task he was sent to the future for.
The other timeline is back in the late 1800s and has Burton sent by Lord Palmerston back to the Mountains of the Moon to seek the last of the three magical Eyes of Naga (the first two were found in books one and two). Meanwhile, Burton’s onetime friend now rival John Speke is leading a German force with the same goal. The race is on.
There are several pluses to enjoy. The fantastical creations of the eugenicists and the genetic engineers are one, horrifying as many of them are. The characters are another. Burton, who was a favorite historical personage of mine, is a great choice as a fictional character thanks to his sense of adventure, independence, intelligence, and most importantly his flexibility of thought which allows him to move smoothly between languages and cultures. Wells was another good choice to pluck from history and makes a strong match for the reduced Burton of the future. Swinburne is less active for most of the book unfortunately, but his presence is more than redeemed by the closing events. Burton’s wife Isabella, who shows up as a fierce and clever guerilla fighter, is a welcome female presence. And several of the side characters, despite little page time, offer up some of the most poignant scenes.
Unfortunately, the positives are balanced or possibly even outweighed by the negatives. One is the overly complex time issues. Others are the annoying traits of some of the secondary characters, some awkward shifts between scenes, and some clumsy recaps of prior events. I also wished Hodder had slowed down a bit and let us linger over some of the scenes, let us enjoy his creativity more fully. Most damaging by far though is the poor pacing of the storyline. When Burton goes on his weeks-long safari-like quest in Africa, for instance, we trudge along with him in what feels like almost real-time so that the slog through the jungle becomes a slog through the book for the reader.
In the end, Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon suffers, much as book two did, from trying to do a bit too much. I really liked the dual storyline and the major characters, but a more streamlined narrative; a clearer, cleaner plot; fewer characters; and about 75 fewer pages would have made this a much, much more enjoyable read.
Burton & Swinburne — (2010-2016) Publisher: Sir Richard Francis Burton — explorer, linguist, scholar, and swordsman; his reputation tarnished; his career in tatters; his former partner missing and probably dead. Algernon Charles Swinburne — unsuccessful poet and follower of de Sade; for whom pain is pleasure, and brandy is ruin! They stand at a crossroads in their lives and are caught in the epicenter of an empire torn by conflicting forces: Engineers transform the landscape with bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier technological wonders; Eugenicists develop specialist animals to provide unpaid labor; Libertines oppose repressive laws and demand a society based on beauty and creativity; while the Rakes push the boundaries of human behavior to the limits with magic, drugs, and anarchy. The two men are sucked into the perilous depths of this moral and ethical vacuum when Lord Palmerston commissions Burton to investigate assaults on young women committed by a weird apparition known as Spring Heeled Jack, and to find out why werewolves are terrorizing London’s East End. Their investigations lead them to one of the defining events of the age, and the terrifying possibility that the world they inhabit shouldn’t exist at all!
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