When a perfectly preserved great auk is recovered from a sinkhole beneath London, Langdon St. Ives is keen to explore the area and prepares to set out for London to visit his old friend, Gilbert Frobisher. However, when a local witch woman is murdered and her head is removed from the scene, St. Ives must also ensure the woman’s blind clairvoyant daughter, Clara, is safe from the villains who come to try and take her away under false pretences. Just what is underground and why are people going to such lengths to keep St. Ives from exploring? With severed heads disappearing, sinister doctors experimenting on asylum patients and a very powerful man pulling all the strings, St. Ives and his companions have their work cut out to keep Clara safe and prevent further deaths.
‘Beneath London’ by James P. Blaylock, seems to be the 9th book to feature Langdon St. Ives and is the 5th of the series that I’ve read. Having found them to be fairly mixed in terms of quality, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this one, but actually found it to be one of the better ones. It has a decent plot that carries us swiftly from the rural home of St. Ives, his family and their stalwart friends, including Clara, to the busy streets of London and its underground secrets. It’s nicely fantastical in nature, featuring a powerful yet insane man called Klingheimer, who seeks to wed Clara and obtain not only her clairvoyant powers, but also eternal life. There’s enough depth to this plot and several other well-written side-plots: exploration of the underground caverns; Finn’s attempts to woo and rescue Clara; the adventures St. Ives’ wife Alice goes on while he is missing and a nice little plot following a dwarf called Beaumont who ends up working in Klingheimer’s house – that it feels like a really well-developed story.
My only complaint is that perhaps there’s a little bit too much going on, with too many different characters popping in and out in various chapters. I thought that Gilbert Frobisher’s fiancé, Cecilia Bracken, in particular, seemed to be superfluous. We start out questioning her motives and wondering how it will all turn out and then, just as we start to see a little bit more of her, she’s relegated to little more than background scenery and disappears from the action. I found that quite unsatisfying, with so much made of her dubious identity earlier on in the book. I’d have liked to see her character arc finished off more tidily, rather than simply being abandoned. Similarly, with the villain and his sidekicks, they seemed to be built up and then left with only a token nod in their direction every so often, making them feel quite lacking in personality and depth.
The climax overall was fairly disappointing. It just fizzled out and there could have been much more tension and emotion in the plot towards the end. Scenes in the asylum could have been much more frightening, the underground climax could have had more exploration of Clara’s emotions and Klingheimer’s fractured mind and certainly Gilbert Frobisher could have had more to say to Cecilia Bracken.
Having said that, there are also some really well-written moments and characters. Finn, a young man who lives on St. Ives’ land, comes across beautifully and I really enjoyed following his adventures as he gallantly and, at times, recklessly tried to rescue Clara. Beaumont was an entertaining character, too, and the scenes with him had a bit of sparkle that was missing in other places. They might not have been the main focus of the story, but their sections elevated it.
I did enjoy this, despite the issues I had with it in places. It is an easy and fast-paced read that carries you along in this bizarre version of London with hints of the supernatural blending in nicely with the more realistic elements of the setting and characters. All in all, it was good fun, but disappointing when just a few changes could have made it something so much more.
(pub: Titan Books, 2015. 407 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK), $14.95.(US), $19.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-78329-260-8)
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