We first encounter Alan Shaw as a street savvy urchin in the back alleys of London. The setting is a subtle mix of realistic Victorian poverty, and the technological wonders one would expect in a retro-futuristic capital of a vast world empire.
The book is divided into five parts. Each part takes place two to four years after the previous part, allowing us to follow the development of Alan Shaw from an eleven-year-old urchin, to a teen, and then into his mid-twenties. During this journey we visit London several times, as well as the seaside resort of Brighton, the choppy landscape of the North Sea, and the varied landscapes of India.
Steampunk elements (think automatons, dirigibles, tank-like land trains, inventors daring and/or dangerous, brass monkeys, a mechanical but lethal tiger, as well as the less tangible existence of magic) seem to be effortlessly interwoven in the story. They are very much a part of it, so no sloppy “glue some gears on it and call it Steampunk” gimmicks going on, but no chutz-pah either, in that they are not brought to the forefront to underline the genre. Instead, this is very much a case of functional steampunk, there to help spur on the impressive narrative flow.
Each part is supplied with a title reminiscent of early 20th century Amazing Stories and Weird Tales magazines. The implied association with ‘pulp’ seems intentional, as Alan Shaw is much taken with a series of graphic novels called the Titus Gladstone Adventures. He mentions to his adopted brother Simon that he basically wants to be Titus Gladstone, and I got the sense that if he intended this as a joke, it wasn’t far off from the truth.
I want to specify that this association with the notion of ‘pulp’ is not a negative one. For one, I used to love (and still do) the stories in those magazines, and they do contain jewels by authors who were sharpening their pencils for greater work to follow, as it were. The name ‘steampunk’ and all of its many genres didn’t exist back then, but a great many of those stories would qualify, and many authors were continuing the work of Wells and Verne. Secondly, these kind of stories, on paper and Saturday matinees on the Silver Screen, were important sources of inspiration for George Lucas’s Raiders of the Lost Ark series, as well as the Star Wars saga. The Adventures of Alan Shaw is in no way fan-fiction, but there are pleasant echoes. In short, if you’re looking for derring-do swashbuckling, this is definitely a book for you, because it contains many spectacular and imaginative action scenes.
That said, there is plenty in the book which belies the ‘pulp’ impression. It is a credit to Craig Hallam’s writing skills that he manages to weave a lot of intelligence into the story without allowing this to become overbearing. This is most notable in the characterisation and social realities.
A hallmark of many old pulpish adventures was the dismissal of women as serious characters by presenting them purely as attractive assistants, swooning wall-flowers, or damsels in distress. I suspect that Craig Hallam gave some thought as to his approach to this out-dated practice. It might have been a bit of a conundrum, even, because Alan Shaw’s occupation is basically that of old-fashioned ‘hero’.
Alan Shaw grows up from a cocky and cheeky lad into a physically fit, manly man, clearly attractive to the opposite sex. He is prone to gung-ho acts of heroism because of his tendency to not run away from danger, but charge it head-on, even when that danger is considerably larger in number or size. In other words, whereas some young man’s bodacious swagger is inevitable, how does a writer prevent the male bravado and prowess of an old-fashioned hero leading to a character whose attitudes might not be palatable to modern readers?
Hallam solves this rather cleverly. In Alan Shaw’s younger years, he is witness to some horrific displays of Victorian mentality with regard to women. In one such scene, Alan Shaw is witness to something akin to domestic violence, in the drinking establishment he worked in as a young child. In another, a slightly older Alan Shaw encounters a very young child, who assumes that our hero is after the same thing other ‘gentlemen’ visiting the slums want from her. In both cases, Alan Shaw displays a strong aversion to this treatment of women. Although it’s not mentioned again, the reader suspects that these formative moments will shape Alan Shaw’s future behaviour towards women.
That established, Hallam allows Alan Shaw the opportunity to sow his wild oats and do a bit of swaggering. Shaw has an eye for beauty, and as young men will, allows his eyes to linger for a moment when opportunity allows. This isn't inappropriate ogling, by the way, more of a "Why, hello there!" look, and Hallam makes sure the reader realises that particular look is always returned in equal measure. When thinking of the Titus Gladstone Adventures, Alan Shaw notes that his hero Gladstone usually ends up with some exotic beauty clinging onto his muscled torso. Our young protagonist also has his own playful dalliances, with partners who were just as delighted as he was with their encounters. We don’t witness these, they are referred to by Alan Shaw in the boastful manner of a young man, but all the while his actions don’t always match his words.
Although Alan Shaw claims that he went to sea to see the world, the implication is that he fled London after his love for a childhood friend went unanswered (she married someone else). This indicates a sensitivity which Alan Shaw is very loathe to admit to. Later, although he scorns the domesticity of married life which his adopted brother Simon seeks, Alan Shaw does appear to doubt his own convictions and even feel a hint of jealousy when he realises what a fine and strong woman his future sister-in-law is. In short, Alan Shaw has a very human tendency to deny emotional motivations, but seems driven by them none-the-less.
This complex attitude and behaviour of Alan Shaw is an important part of the story, though subtly so without the excess exploratory blathering of the type this review is guilty of. It would be a spoiler to describe how the development of Alan Shaw’s attitude and behaviour towards the opposite sex ends. Suffice to say, it actually closes the story, and completes the progression of the protagonist’s well-rounded character.
For someone who loudly professes to be mainly interested in the simplicity of the damsels hanging on to the muscular frame of Titus Gladstone, Alan Shaw spends most of his time in the company of women united by their strong sense of independence. These aren’t two-dimensional wallflowers, but full and distinct characters in their own right. They are depicted with a warm, and sometimes humourous sympathy by the author. They also share another trait, in that they are far more clever than Alan Shaw, and he's usually left feeling slightly foolish when he's outwitted by them (yet again!). Last-but-not-least, they are the kind of characters you miss when they fade out of the story, and you hope to meet again in future instalments. The scientifically minded Adrienne, the seemingly demure Charlotte, the intriguing Jessamine Maskelyne, the oil-stained and cursing engineer Estelle, and the proud Rani...to name a few impressive and unforgettable characters.
Although Alan Shaw rises in social status, the slums he grew up in as a young child will forever be a part of him. This is another well-rounded aspect of his character, and adds to the nitty-gritty realism of the book. I think any treatise of the Victorian period, historical or fantastical, would be dreadfully incomplete without touching upon the huge importance of class, and the subsequent limitations, injustice, and unbearable snobbery. I realise this is a contentious issue, and my opinion subjective. Nonetheless, when this aspect of the past becomes glossed over in a Steampunk story, with working class people only present as unassuming servants, or as comic interludes to be laughed at, my personal reaction is one of disappointment (unless everyone is laughed at in equal measure).
The same applies to the natives of far-flung exotic destinations. I have read a few stories which reminded me very much of the ex-pat communities in Asia and Africa where I spent much of my childhood. The only local contact was interaction with native servants, and so it seems sometimes with Steampunk stories in which fancy ladies and gents swan about the empire, in which locals feature only to serve a G&T. My suspension of disbelief tends to be shattered when a realistic portrayal of class division and colonialism is entirely absent.
Fortunately, Craig Hallam passes these tests with flying colours. Alan Shaw’s humble origins guarantee class awareness, and the final story’s destination brings the darker aspects of colonialism into a sharp focus.
I sincerely hope my extensive rambling above hasn’t put you off, because Craig Hallam is far less pedantic in tone. Instead, the various aspects discussed above have been skilfully interwoven into the general narrative. This allows the reader the option to be carried along by the roller-coaster of a plot, with all of its unexpected twists and turns, enchanted by all the elements which make up a good and eminently readable yarn. Alternatively, the book can also be experienced as thought-provoking. Hallam wisely leaves the choice up to you.
I hope my enjoyment of this story shone through, and I recommend this read without reservations. I am looking forward to reading book two (OLD HAUNTS), and am very tempted to try his GREAVEBURN as well.