The Empress of Mars drifted slowly over the great metropolis, a sleek silver air-form, one-third of a mile in length. The first of its kind, an aerial pleasure ship.
Sadly, upon this night of nights, the capital was wreathed in fog. Another industrial pea-souper. the dome of St. Paul's peeked above the murk, as did the tessallated tower of the Babbage Institute for the Advancement of Science. And towards the south, a golden glow, as of some rich and royal treasure could be discerned atop the hills at Sydenham. From the destination of this wondrous aircraft. the Crystal Palace.
Ten years after the Martian Invasion described by H. G . Wells, Great Britain has colonised Mars and .trades throughout the solar system in spaceships back-engineered by Babbage and Tesla from the crashed vessels of the Martian Invaders, while Venusians and Jovians are regularly seen on the streets of London.
Professor Coffin and his assistant George make their living by displaying the preserved body of a dead Martian in side shows, but the Martian is getting smellier and more unpleasant every day, and the Professor is in dire need of a replacement attraction. So they joint the maiden round the world voyage of The Empress of Mars and head for Japan in search of the ultimate sideshow attraction, the Japanese Devil Fish Girl.
This is a humorous alternate history, a romping story of travel, adventure, deception, betrayal, religious cults, lost civilisations and mysterious books, set in a late-Victorian steampunk world. I romped through it at speed, but I didn't get round to writing this review until about three weeks later, and I couldn't remember the ending at all, so I guess I would have to describe it as a fun read but ultimately unmemorable.
Book 18: "Against a Dark Background" by Iain M. Banks
They could see the nebulae, beautiful and distant and beckoning, and could tell that those faraway galaxies were composed of suns, other stars like Thrial, and could even guess that some of those suns too might have planets around them . . . but they looked in vain for stars anywhere near their own.
The sky was full of darkness. There were planets and moons and the tiny feathery whorls of the dim nebulae, and they had themselves filled it with junk and traffic and the emblems of a thousand different languages, but they could not create the skies of a planet within a galaxy, and they could not ever hope, within any frame of likelihood they could envisage existing, to travel to anywhere beyond their own system, or the everywhere-meaningless gulf of space surrounding their own isolated and freakish star.
For a distance that was never less than a million light years in any direction around it, Thrial -- for all its flamboyant dispersion of vivifying power and its richly fertile crop of children planets -- was an orphan.
This book is a stand-alone, and not part of the Culture series, although I suppose it's possible that it takes place in the same universe, and that the isolated position of this star means that the Culture has never come calling.
As the book starts, Lady Sharrow is preparing to go on the run, as the Huhsz, a religious cult who murdered her mother and are determined to destroy the female line of her family, are about to be granted a year-long passport to track her down and kill her. Rather than going into hiding, Sharrow decides to go on the offensive, and track down the Lazy Gun that her ancestor stole form the cult, as its return will end the hunt. It's a strange idea, that giving people carte blanche to kill someone legally for a limited period would prevent assassinations. I can't see it working in reality, especially with a religiously motivated group like the Huhsz. Would they really just give up once the year was up?
But there are some really interesting concepts; a prison without locks, a tree that covers half a planet, and the city that was abandoned due to radiation which is now a city of androids, And of course the Lazy Guns. Lazy Guns are cool. So although I am a huge Culture fan, "Against a Dark Bacjkground" as equally good, just different.
Book 19: "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." by Washington Irving
When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard. Indeed, it behooved him to keep on good terms with his pupils. The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda; but to help out his maintenance, he was, according to country custom in those parts, boarded and lodged at the houses of the farmers whose children he instructed. With these he lived successively a week at a time, thus going the rounds of the neighborhood, with all his worldly effects tied up in a cotton handkerchief.
I was expecting this to be a book of short stories, when it was selected for my book club, but it's a mixture of stories and essays.
Irving starts the book by explaining how he got it published in Britain, and he comes across as a bit of a ditherer. Having had his book rejected by the London publisher John Murray, he gets Walter Scott to recommend him to a publisher in Scotland, then changes his mind and has it self-published in London, only for that to go wrong when the publisher went bust. Eventually the book was published by John Murray after Scott interceded for him again!
"The Voyage" brought home to me how different travel used to be. Irving says that the long sea voyage between America and Europe means that there is a clear break between home and abroad and allows travellers to prepare themselves mentally for new countries and new experiences. His next essay was set in Liverpool, where he landed in England, and is a tribute to William Roscoe a Liverpool man who devoted his life to writing histories of the Medicis, and on civic works in Liverpool. I found it quite ironic how Irving praised Roscoe for working so hard and doing so much for his home town, when he himself even made an excuse not to accept a job handed to him on a plate by Walter Scott when he was totally broke.
And then I finally got to a story. At least I "The Wife" may be a story, although it starts off more like an essay in praise of women and marriage. In fact, there are a couple of probably fictional accounts contained within the essays, there are only two bona fide "stories" in the whole book. These are the well known tales "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", both of which I enjoyed. Although I had heard about Rip Van Winkle's long sleep, I had assumed that he had been bewitched by fairies, whereas he actually encounters the ghosts of Hendrick (Henry) Hudson and his crew, although this fits with the intertwined folklore concerning fairies and the dead, with the same stories that are told of fairies in some places, being told about the dead in others. I had never read "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" either, although I saw the Johnny Depp film when it came out, and was aware that the film-makers had changed the ending. It was quite funny actually, with Ichabod Crane's obsession with food. At one point his eyes light up when he entered a room, and I assumed was because he had caught sigh of the girl he supposedly loved (and I was glad, because I thought maybe he did love her rather than the size of her inheritance), but then I turned the page and discovered that he had actually caught sight of a table laden with food!
It took me quite a while to read this book, because some of the essays were a bit samey, as is the way with collections of journalism, so I split them up and read other things in-between. I salsa kipped the stories about old-fashioned English Christmas traditions, as they were included in "The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall" which I only read about 18 months ago .but I did enjoy his atmospheric description of a day spent wandering around Westminster Abbey, and the essay about the joys of fishing.
Book 20: "Black Dog" by Stephen Booth
Cooper looked again at the summit of Win Low and the Witches There was a n ancient pack horse road crossing the tore, beneath the shadow of the twisted rocks. But it would be a brave traveller who went that way at night. It was all too easy to imagine the black hounds of the legends growling up there on the dark ridge, waiting to pounce.
And once the black dogs of hell were on your back, you could nee shake them off.
This is the first in a series of police procedurals set in the Peak District. I've read a couple of them before, but I was glad to get hold of the copy of the first book and discover the origins of the strained professional relationship between police officers Ben Cooper and Diane Fry. The mystery at the heart of the story involves strong bonds of family and friendship, and local boy Cooper and incomer Fry take very different approaches to the investigation.investigation.
I loved the cover, too. It's an atmospheric picture of lichen-covered crags under a lowering sky, which fits the story's Peak District location perfectly.