The Adventure of the Ring of Stones by James P. Blaylock
The Adventure of the Ring of Stones is one of several novellas written by James P. Blaylock that Subterranean Press has published. Each of these is a stand-alone steampunk adventure featuring Langdon St. Ives, the gentleman scientist/adventurer who stars in Blaylock’s LANDGDON ST. IVES novels. It would be helpful, but not at all necessary, to have read the novels Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine, and The Aylesford Skull before reading this novella. Not so much for the history of the character, but really more so you’ll be in tune with Blaylock’s very particular sense of humor. It may not seem like it at first, but these books are comedies and I’m not sure how well that comes across in Blaylock’s shorter works if you’re not already familiar with his style.
The story is narrated by Langdon’s friend Jack Owlesby, a character whose voice I loved in Lord Kelvin’s Machine. Jack tells how he, Langdon St. Ives, and Langdon’s man Hasbro, join eccentric billionaire Gilbert Frobisher aboard his steam yacht. Gilbert has a secret letter (which we read in the prologue) that exposes the whereabouts of a vast treasure in a cavern under a volcanic island. He also has a diving bell (a device that was used in a previous novel) which they will use to procure the treasure. It’s a perfect and easy plan. There are two major obstacles, however. One is the murderous pirates that are chasing them and who want the treasure for themselves. The other is the ferocious sea creatures that are guarding the treasure. The gentlemen will need to overcome these foes if they want to bring the treasure back to London… and then the story takes a peculiar unexpected twist.
Readers who know what to expect from Blaylock and have enjoyed his other LANGDON adventures will probably enjoy this one, too. There are the usual heavy mid-day meals in taverns, wild chases through alleys, tromps through sewers, tricky criminals and, of course, bombs, pistols and dirigibles. And a dead cow. Jack spends one scene lamenting that while he’s about to be shot by pirates, he’s been caught out in public in his nightgown. The story is totally madcap, especially after Langdon and his friends find the treasure. At that point it turns into a bizarre steampunk mish-mash of King Kong and Cthulhu. I thought it was sillier than usual for Blaylock, and the Cthulhu bit felt a little like Blaylock was jumping on the recent Cthulhu bandwagon, but I did enjoy spending time with Langdon and his friends.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Blaylock may not know what to make of this story and, like I said, I think Blaylock doesn’t come across as well for new readers in novella form. You need a little more time to settle into his distinct style and appreciate the humor of it, and that may not be possible if you’re not already familiar with his characters. (This is a guess, so if you feel differently, please let me know.)
One other thing new readers should know: there are hardly any women in the LANGDON ST. IVES books. Langdon’s wife Alice is a smart and competent woman, but she rarely makes an appearance. Most of the other women are servants or shopkeepers. (Though Zeuglodon is a related story that stars a girl scientist.)
The Adventure of the Ring of Stones is illustrated by J.K. Potter. I can’t say I’m a fan of Potter’s art, though I did like the illustration that accompanied chapter 9… And, I guess that’s all I want to say about the art.