2013 has seen the re-release of a hallmark novel in the Steampunk genre, by the near-legendary James P. Blaylock. Homunculus, originally published in 1986, was revamped by Titan Books along with Blaylock’s 1992 novel Lord Kelvin’s Machine, after the release of The Ayelsford Skull , the 7th instalment in the Narbondo series (aka The Tales of Langdon St Ives).
For many people, The Aylesford Skull was their first encounter with Blaylock, Steampunk having seen a huge rise in popularity since the book was released the first time around, and they have since returned to the earlier novels in the series to catch up on what they missed. For some of us however, Homunculus, and indeed The Digging Leviathan, the original novel in this series, are very familiar. For me, personally, I welcomed the re-release of these novels, as my own copies had quite literally fallen apart. It also provided me with an excuse to re-read them, and I am pleased to say they have not lost their charm.
Blaylock has the ability to draw marvelous characters, and the cast assembled in Homunculus is nothing short of delightful. From the quite mad evangelist Shiloh, hell bent of resurrecting his dead mother and finding the Homunculus (which he believes to be his father), to Dr Ignatio, the man Shiloh is paying to revive his mother’s remains, and Drake, Ignatio’s benefactor and a man with his own nefarious motivations, the villains of the piece are many and varied. On the side of good (or at least, the side of sanity), Langdon St Ives and Theophilus Godal work with an eclectic group of individuals to retrieve the dirigible, piloted by a dead man, that has been orbiting London in an ever-deteriorating course for some years. As both sides clash in their various endeavours, a mystery unravels in Victorian London that is both captivating and, at times, highly amusing. Characters fall over each other and interact in ways you never see coming, while the tension for each individual character builds differently, for they all have different goals, but are united by one unfathomable creature: the Homunculus.
Despite these undeniably wonderful aspects, and prose written to perfection for this genre, Homunculus is not without its faults, namely the pace with which things progress. By the end of the story, things trip along quite nicely, but in order to get to that point, many seemingly unrelated events have to be relayed and, while they are often individually quite a pleasant read, one has the feeling that they lack coherence; the plot stumbles regularly, as there is not enough depth to it at times to support the myriad characters and their isolated mishaps. It feels, in some parts, as if you are reading a collection of stories about people who happen to know each other, rather than a fully fledged tale.
This should not put people off reading it. Certainly I have read it numerous times and will doubtless read it again at some stage. There is something about the world created and the characters populating it that is simply irresistible and, without a doubt, it is one of the few so-called Steampunk novels deserving the title. The reason for this is not that it is filled with flying machines, and Victorian costumes and etiquette, but rather that it explores the underlying themes of the genre, and does so both subtly and elegantly.
Regardless of the flaws in the narrative, Homunculus remains one of my favourite Steampunk novels, and one of a very few in this genre not written by H.G. Wells or Jules Verne that is truly worthy of the term ‘Classic’.