Saturday, July 28, 2012

James P. Blaylock: Fantasy & Steampunk Novelist

Often times writing (and for you guys reading) this blog feels like I'm taking a car trip on a winding mountain road at night in the rain with only one working headlight and windshield wipers that scratch across the glass more than they wipe it clear. I'm not sure that that all means, other than some nights I feel rather nostalgic for the good old days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when gaming, computers, fantasy, and science fiction held a magical grip on my young imagination.

So where is this road leading me tonight? How about to one of my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers at the time, James P. Blaylock? Perhaps you've heard of him, though odds on you haven't. His first novel was The Elfin Ship in 1982, followed by The Disappearing Dwarf in 1983, which I accidentally read prior to reading The Elfin Ship! These were part of what would become his Elfin series of four novels. He wrote other novels as well, eventually being influenced by the emerging steampunk movement of the time, and he continues to write today.

Blaylock writes in a very off-beat, light-hearted manner, heavily influenced by 19th century British and American literature with a twist of Monty Python tossed in. Very odd and humorous, with numerous literary references and word-plays. We'd classify his style as "magic realism," placing him among writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, who wrote the novel 100 Years of Solitude. Blaylock's quirky humor has always fit my quirky sense of humor.

Of course, I knew practically nothing about that literary stuff at the time. I was just a young adult/kid working in my dad's store. I wouldn't become a literature major for a few more years. Still, I always had an interest in Victorian science fiction from reading Wells and Verne. Later, I would go on to specialize in 19th century British and American literature.

You can find most of Blaylock's works on the Nook for $10 each, though finding paperbacks seems to be easy enough as well. I've listed most of the Blaylock novels below that I've read. I stopped reading him after 1986, mainly because I had too much else to read as a literature major and he had worn thin for me. Homunculus, for example, juggles more characters and plot threads than Blaylock can really handle well. But his early novels are a breezy read. If you like Victorian science fiction with a twist of fantasy, check out James P. Blaylock, one of my favorite imaginative writers from the early 1980s.

The Elfin Ship (1982)

Trading with the elves used to be so simple. Every year Master Cheeser Jonathan Bing would send his very best cheeses downriver to traders who would eventually return with Elfin wonders for the people of Twombly Town.

But no more...

First, the trading post at Willowood Station was mysteriously destroyed. Then a magical elfin airship began making forays overhead: Jonathan knew something was definitely amiss.

So he set off downriver to deliver the cheeses himself, accompanied by the amazing Professor Wurzle, the irrepressible Dooly, and his faithful dog Ahab. It would have been such a pleasant trip, if not for the weeping skeleton, mad goblins, magic coins, an evil dwarf, a cloak of invisibility - and a watch that stopped time.

Of course, the return trip was not so simple...

The Disappearing Dwarf (1983)

Jonathan Bing, Master Cheeser, has been growing a bit bored in Twombly Town. So it’s no surprise that when Professor Wurzle suggests a trip downriver, Jonathan jumps at the chance. A visit to the Evil Dwarf Selznak’s abandoned castle leads to a treasure hunt, but also to the discovery that Jonathan’s old friend the Squire has vanished, and that Selznak may be involved.

Jonathan--accompanied by his wonderpooch Ahab, the Professor, and Miles the Magician--will have to set off to darkest Balumnia, to the city of Landsend, to find the treasure, and the Squire. And to make matters worse, Selznak will be there, too...

The Digging Leviathan (1984)

Southern California - sunny days, blue skies, neighbours on flying bicycles ... ghostly submarines ... mermen off the Catalina coast ... and a vast underground sea stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Inland Empire where Chinese junks ply an illicit trade and enormous creatures from ages past still survive. It is a place of wonder ... and dark conspiracies. A place rife with adventure - if one knows where to look for it. Two such seekers are the teenagers Jim Hastings and his friend, Giles Peach. Giles was born with a wonderful set of gills along his neck and insatiable appetite for reading. Drawing inspiration from the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Giles is determined to build a Digging Leviathan. Will he reach the center of the earth? or destroy it in the process?

Homunculus (1986)

In 1870s London, a city of contradictions and improbabilities, a dead man pilots an airship and living men are willing to risk all to steal a carp. Here, a night of bangers and ale at the local pub can result in an eternity at the Blood Pudding with the rest of the reanimated dead.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great tribute to Blaylock's early works! When I was a teen, I also became a fan through his Cheeser books and The Digging Leviathan.

    You should give a few of his other works a try as well -- The Last Coin would likely be very enjoyable to you as well.

    My devotion to Blaylock as a fan eventually lead me to writing a gargantuan, comprehensive bibliography of all of his publications, along with his frequent collaborator, Tim Powers. (Published just this past week at Argent Leaf Press.)


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