The first book in the alternate reality/steampunk Burton and Swinburne series but can be read as a stand-alone.

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Publication year: 2010
Format: Audio
Running time: 14 hours
Narrator: Gerard Doyle

This story is set in1861 in Albertian England. Victoria was assassinated when she was young and King Albert is a recluse as a monarch. This book has a gorgeously realized alternate reality where Charles Darwin’s theories have greatly diminished the importance of religion and London’s streets are filled with various steampunk engines and also enhanced animals. Two very different factions influence British society: Techonologists and Eugenicists. The first ones, of course, create machines while the second faction create genetically enhanced animals which work in very specialized areas, such as parakeet who deliver messages. Then there are the Libertines who want everyone of be free of social conventions. The Rakes take the Libertines’ values even further to callous sexual and drug addled deviancy without any restrictions at all.

Sir Richard Francis Burton is a renowned scholar and explorer. He and his former partner John Speke explored Africa and Middle-East a lot. As a consequence, his reputation is bad. Still, when king Albert calls him to serve, he can’t say no. However, the missions will put him in jeopardy and as a result, he breaks up his engagement with Isabel Arundel. Her parents are very relieved but she takes it badly.

Burton is charged with finding man-wolfs who are apparently kidnapping poor children. And he meets with the Spring Heeled Jack who is pretty much a bogey man in this London. The Jack roughs him up and demands that Burton “do what he’s supposed to do”. When Burton tells about this strange encounter to the Prime minister, he orders Burton to find out more about the Jack.

Burton’s closest associate Algernon Swinburne is a young “failed poet” who drinks too much and longs for life-threatening adventure so that knows that he’s alive. He practically forces his help on Burton.

This was a strange book, as the title promised, with alternate history turned up to ten. I’m not so sure that Queen Victoria’s death alone would have caused all this and later we found out that it didn’t.

Many historical people appear in the story and a couple of them are dragged in the mud as the villains. I didn’t know about them so I won’t spoil the surprises from anyone else. Burton and Swinburne are both historical figures, themselves. Spring-heeled Jack is also a real historical mythical figure.

The last third of the book really goes deep into the Jack and I found it fascinating.

The writing style is quite, er, Victorian. Especially at the start we’re told pretty much everything about the characters and their backstory. Shameless info dumps abound. The steampunk technology is very comic book like. If you like the writing style, I think you’ll like the book.

I liked it enough that I might read the sequel at some point.