I need to make two qualifications to this review. Firstly, I haven’t read any of the previous three Burton & Swinburne novels. This may have left me at a disadvantage. Knowing that there had been three previous adventures in the series meant that I was thrown slightly by Burton apparently meeting Swinburne for the first time in what is the fourth in the series. I also suspect that The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is much better read as a continuation of the series than as a stand-alone novel – in fact, I have a nagging feeling that I may have missed all sorts of points.
Secondly, I’m not much of a steampunk fan. I love Michael Moorcock and his forays into the genre but, although steampunk should, in theory, appeal to my tastes, in practice I’ve found it difficult to get into. Again, this may be because I’ve been trying the wrong books or because my expectations of the genre are too great but I came to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi with an odd mixture of hope and apprehension.
The backdrop to The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is an alternate Victorian England in which, inter alia, Queen Victoria was assassinated in 1840, Germany became unified in the 1850s (rather than following the Franco-Prussian war), Richard Burton received the credit he was due for having discovered the source of the Nile (with Speke dying and not beating him back to England) and technological marvels such as airships, rotorchairs and primitive computers and robots are part of life.
The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi opens with Burton returning by airship from Africa suffering from malaria and a kind of breakdown as well as having to deal with the ritualistic murder of one of his companions. Once back in London, he is knighted, reunited with his fiancée, Isabelle, and appointed king’s agent (with Victoria having been assassinated, George V is the reigning monarch). A number of prominent scientists and other personages including Charles Babbage and Florence Nightingale have disappeared and Burton’s mission is to find out what has happened to them. He is also made party to the stunning secret that, since Victoria’s death, the British government has been receiving advice from a spirit, Abdu El-Yezdi, who has masterminded Britain’s renaissance and is working to bring about a rapprochement between Britain and Germany. Unfortunately, Abdu El-Yezdi has disappeared too, adding another complexity to Burton’s mission.
Revealing any more of the plot would almost certainly risk detracting from one’s enjoyment of the book, save to say that a complicated plot unwinds thereafter culminating in some heavy action and a major twist at the end.
Hodder crams his story full of literary allusions including references to Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein and Dracula. The latter in particular is almost a sub-text in itself, with a young Bram Stoker appearing as Burton’s valet and the plot itself involving a nosferatu (a type of vampire) in a foreshadowing of the yet to be written Dracula.
Similarly, The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi is a grab-bag of 19th Century historical figures, both major and minor. As many of them are portrayed differently from their real characters, Hodder provides a handy and lengthy dramatis personae section at the end. I’d advise leaving this to the end rather than dipping into as the book progresses to avoid spoiling the surprises.
As all this may be suggesting, Hodder’s greatest strength lies in his intricate world-building and playful subversion of history. His Victorian London has a real steampunk vibe and combines more or less accurate historical nuggets with manipulations of other events, both in fact and time. This is where my lack of familiarity of his previous Burton & Swinburne novels may have limited my enjoyment of The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi as I had a sense that many of the events referenced back to the earlier books – references I clearly didn’t get.
Unfortunately, the book is so heavily driven by the plot (and Hodder’s numerous sub-plots, which were well-organised and didn’t confuse the main storyline) and the world-building that the characterisations and writing style have been neglected. Although the contrasts in Burton and Swinburne’s personalities made for an interesting relationship, the characters in general were a little flat and, in particular, the few female characters seemed curiously formless. Likewise, the writing style was a little lifeless and functioned only to move the plot forward. Fortunately, the plot and Hodder’s world are interesting enough for this not to matter too much.
I found The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi quite difficult to get into, which may be the result of my ambivalent attitude to steampunk, and I almost gave up after the first third. I’m glad I persevered though as the pace picked up, I got my head round the timeline and it just got a whole lot better.
If you are a fan of Hodder’s other books, I’m sure you’ll love this, as will steampunk fans, Victorian history and literature lovers and aficionados of the esoteric. I’m not sure others will appreciate it so much and I’d very much recommend having read the first three of the series before this one.
Thank you to the publishers, Ebury, for allowing me to read The Secret of Abdu El-Yezdi through Netgalley.