Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder (Pyr 2011)
In Hodder’s final installment of this steam punk trilogy, we again meet Sir Richard Burton near the conclusion of the tale, which in turn takes place about forty years prior to we left him off in the second book, The Clockwork Man. We (and Burton) are not given long to dwell in the past before Hodder spirits us away to 1914 and World War I. Unlike our Great War, this one has already gone one for considerable length of time and British are making a last stand in East Africa (Just forget about the British Isles. Those had been long lost to the Germans and Kaiser Nietzsche).1 Burton should, and had been, long dead. Time travel is funny like that. This world war, if not more hellish, is certainly more unnatural than the one that almost no one now remembers. It certainly have nightmares of its own. If the reader may recall from The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, two classes of innovations arose centuries before their time—some in defiance to the laws of nature. One followed a biological path (the geneticists) and the other a physical or engineering path (the technologists). By the conclusion of TheCurious Case of the Clockwork Man, Britain had abandoned genetic research in favor of technology and Germany, in a quest to arrive at the Superman that would transcend nature, worked exclusively in genetics. The range and scale, as depicted in Expedition, to which plants and animals can be made into weapons and engines of war is truly horrifying. One weapon in particular, in which the victim is transmogrified into a plant but where the properties of each are blurred, figures predominately. Fortunately Hodder’s prose does not extend as far as his imagination, so that the reader who does not wish to be compelled to face the full force of these horrors need not do so.
There is a certain relief, then to return to the present of 1863 where Burton and Swinburne are sent to find the last undiscovered Nāga black diamonds, which as we learned from the Clockwork Man, allow for—among other things—time travel.2 The cover-story for this mission is that Burton is off once more to find the source of the Nile. Burton brings with him all our favorites from the past two books. No explanation is made about how a poet, a number of policemen, and a mechanical philosopher (just to name few) fit into the official story. The crew, however, would give the promise of excellent company and wit over what would prove an arduous expedition. It is a promise unfulfilled. Everyone is always repressively grim. Early on, Swinburne takes on the role of avenging angel. Burton is forever serious. Almost every member of the expedition dies off in one way are another, without the relief of gallows humor. One might of expected that when Burton’s old love, Isabel, joins the team as the leader of a small army of Arab Amazons, that something interesting would happen. Yet too soon Isabel reverts to form, developing a stiff upper lip. Hodder even misses opportunities with the villains. As with the race to find the source of the Nile in our time, Burton is in a race to find the black diamond against John Speke. It is clear, almost from the moment we encounter Speke that he is not of nefarious material. Instead, the blame can be shifted to the Germans and the Babbage machine that occupies half of Speke’s brain. Even George Lucas knew that we needed to be loathed and intrigued by Darth Vader until the Sith Lord redeems himself at the very end. The Germans, are easy to hate—if only because Hodder has uniformly made them such tedious monsters. One gets the impression that Burton’s exhaustion in is quest is matched only by Hodder’s single minded determination to finish the series. It is enough make one wish to return to the World War.
That wish is granted, since most of the time one is bounced between 1863 and the years 1914-1917. At least the World War has the benefit of a fresh character, H. G. Wells, war correspondent. Wells (who goes by Bertie) is interesting enough, but can’t hold a candle to the previous installments of Swineburne, drunk or sober. Swineburne, whose mission of vengeance was mercifully cut short by his presumed demise in 1863, does reappear in the World War, not a mere plant but an entire jungle. In the last few chapters, and all too briefly, we can at least hear the voice the delighted us in the past two books, if actually meeting him is not unlike discovering Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors.
Burton does make his way back 1840 to stop the assassination of Queen Victoria and the madness that Edward Oxford bequeathed to the past. Hodder does manage to pick up the pace here and Burton stands on the knife-edge of either resetting events back into balance, merely reinforcing the horrors Burton has witnessed, or adding a new voices to the cacophony. In the end, Burton (and apparently Hodder) make the mistake in concluding that is the assassination of the monarch is pivotal and not Oxford’s retreat to 1837. In an attempt to work against the reader’s anticipation, Hodder manages to dissolve his first and best effort in this trilogy in to roiling gray ether of his final entry.
2And in the process answers the question of how it is that a historian, such as Spring Heeled Jack could travel through time.
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