James P. Blaylock is recognized as one of the pioneers of the Steampunk literary genre, thanks to novels like Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine. Now at last, he's returning to his Steampunk Langdon St. Ives series with his first full-length novel in two decades: The Aylesford Skull, which comes out tomorrow. And we've got an exclusive excerpt!
Here's the novel's official synopsis:
It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer is at home in Aylesford with his family. However a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay, the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race into London in pursuit…
And here's our excerpt:
River Thames, the Sea Reach
The black smoke issuing from the chimney of the steam launch was nearly invisible under the cloudy night sky, although now and then the moon shone through a break in the clouds, illuminating the narrow launch, the streaming smoke, and the dirty canvas canopy that arched over the stern of the thirty-five-foot vessel. The river was empty in the early morning darkness, nothing to be seen ahead, and far behind them the shadow of the distant boat that they'd passed forty minutes back, low in the water, disappearing behind flurries of rain.
The launch wanted very little draught, and now she hugged the marshy Thames shore, running upriver toward Gravesend. The Pilot, Nathaniel Wise, stood at the wheel in the prow, his hat doing little to keep off the rain. Despite his time on the water, he had never learned to swim, and he meant to be as close in to the land as ever he could be if there were trouble, especially on this uncomfortably empty stretch of river. He owed nothing to the man who had hired him, and although the pay was good enough, it wasn't worth dying for, not by a long chalk.
"Those lights you see," he said to the dull-witted boy sitting by the furnace, "them's the lights of the Havens, as we call them, and over there the Chapman Light." The boy looked around, trying to make out what Wise was talking about. "There on the starboard shore, Billy. Not much farther now and we'll slant 'round into the Lower Hope, and then it's ten miles in all to Gravesend. In an hour by the clock you'll be dry again, with the tide beating against the stern like it is."
The boy nodded at him, but didn't speak. Too miserable, perhaps. The wind sprang up now, the rain beat down, and there was thunder downriver. In Gravesend, Wise would collect his percentage and find a warm berth at a handy inn, leaving the unloading of the launch to the four men who huddled in the stern beneath the canvas now, out of the rain and dry, drunk on gin they'd bought by the quart in Margate. Their singing was loud and tuneless when it wasn't drowned out by the rain and thunder. It had been worse when they were sober. Now and then one of them was taken with a fit of laughter that gave way to an explosion of coughing. That the man hadn't spewed up his lungs was a miracle.
Pilot, captain, and bleeding engineer, Wise thought, commanding a crew of layabout drunks dredged out of a Billingsgate tavern by the fool of a merchant who had hired the launch. Wise was a lighterman by trade, and carried cargo upriver and down, but he had signed on for this cruise across the Channel to France because he couldn't turn down the pay, which was five times what it should be. And it was the pay that was the two-edged sword, as the saying went – overlarge for the time spent, and that implied risk, although he was damned if he knew what sort.
The boy fed coal to the boiler with a big scoop, doing his duty, hunkering down in the falling rain and no doubt wishing he were lying abed wherever he called home. He had been sick on the Channel crossing, his first time at sea, he had told Wise. And the last, no doubt. He wasn't made for it. The boy set the scoop down, sheltering his face with his hand, and with the other he picked up a heavy iron poker and stirred the coals, which glowed orange, throwing out a welcome heat. He had done his work steadily enough, despite the rain and in between puking over the side.
The launch had come around through the Dover Strait from a no-name, ramshackle dock on a deserted stretch of shore below Calais, where they had loaded a round dozen of beef kegs in the dead of night. If the kegs actually contained beef, Wise thought, he would eat his hat. Contraband was more like it, although the kegs were too light for brandy. But it was none of his business – his commission was purely temporary – and he had learned to shut off any curiosity at the tap. Curiosity was a beehive of trouble. And he wasn't of the variety of lighterman who helped himself to cargo, either. Sooner or later that caper would spell the end of a man's livelihood, or the gibbet, like as not. He looked back downriver toward the east, trying to hurry the dawn, but it was early yet, and the thick clouds would hide the daylight until the sun was well up.
When the rain fell off and made talking easier, Wise said, "There on the larboard side lies Egypt Bay, Billy, and with the Cliffe Marshes beyond. You can see the black shadow of the rise there along the shore. When the moon looks out you'll make out the mouth of the bay, but on a filthy night like this it's all one. Nought but smugglers and river pirates since the dawn of time in Egypt Bay. I've heard stories of the old Shade House Inn, with signal lights in the top window, and an honest man as good as dead if he came upon it on a dark night. There were tunnels away under the marsh, full of plunder brought in from distant lands. Like as not the plunder lies there today, although you'd be a fool to search for it. It's still a den of cutthroats when the sun sets. What do you think of that, Billy?"
The boy looked out over the water, peering at the southern shore, but said nothing, although his eyes were wide and searching.
"There was a keg at the Shade House," Wise said, looking ahead at the river, "full of rum, with a severed head aswim in it that they say was the Duke of Monmouth, preserved in spirits these many years. The rogues would drink of it and then top off the keg so that the head was always a-brewing. Many's the time that the Duke's head would rise up out of the keg and have his say, a-dripping rum from his mouth..."
The boy shouted a startled, "There!" just as the rain beat down again. He stood up and pointed with the iron poker. Wise looked sharply back to port, seeing with shocked surprise that a black cutter bore down on them, already close – six men on the thwarts leaning hard into muffled oars, black kerchiefs over their faces. The cutter must have rowed out of Egypt Bay, meaning to take the launch – What comes of speaking of the Devil, Wise thought.
"All hands!" he shouted, although the singing continued aft as he swung the wheel hard to port, thinking to run in toward shore – to run her aground if he had to and damn the cargo. The crew could earn their keep if they chose to stay and fight.
But it was too late. He heard the thud of a grappling hook striking home, the launch slewing sideways with the weight of the cutter, which backed water hard, coming around and slamming sideways into the launch, the pirates shipping their oars and swarming over the low gunwale.
The flap of the canvas flew back, the singing at an end, but the first man out from under the canopy was shot in the chest at close range. He reeled backward, pushing the canvas toward the stern with his head and his flung-back arms, the heavy, wet canopy encumbering the other three men, who tried to fight their way clear – sober enough now.
Wise abandoned the wheel, looking hard toward shore, still a good distance away, the launch turning in a lazy arc. Pistol shots mingled with the crack of thunder, the two running together. The river pirates were intent upon murder, and Wise wondered again what was in the kegs and how the pirates bloody well knew.
He stepped in a low crouch to the starboard railing, meaning to throw himself overside and take his chances with the river, but he saw that the boy still stood as if frozen. Wise grabbed him by the shoulder and shouted, "Can you swim, Billy?" He looked up in the same moment to see one of the pirates, a huge man, whose long black beard flowed out from beneath his kerchief, leveling a pistol at him. Without waiting for Billy's reply, Wise picked the boy up bodily, spun around, and heaved him over the railing. The bullet punched Wise sideways, a searing pain in his left shoulder. He knew without question that the pirates would kill them all, and that he would just as surely drown in the river if he leapt in. With his good hand he snatched up the iron poker from beside the coal oven. It felt pitifully light to him now, but it was the only weapon within reach.
The big man who had shot him had turned away to club one of the crew with his pistol, the man crawling across the deck, as if he might yet slip beneath the railing and swim away. The pirate bent over the now-still form, placed the barrel against the back of the man's head, and pulled the trigger. Wise, knowing that it was futile even as he sprang forward, hammered the bar down upon the big man's head, heaving his full weight behind the blow, although already weakening from the bleeding wound in his shoulder, his left arm slick with blood. The bar tore itself out of Wise's grip as he was shot in the neck by someone unseen and thrown back against the oven, the red-hot chimney searing his flesh through his clothing.
Wise reeled away. His senses were uncannily sharp in that moment; he heard the rain beating on the deck and hissing on the hot iron of the oven, and he smelled the rain and the river, and saw with particular clarity the lights winking along the far shore. He felt the railing in the small of his back, and he heard what sounded to him like the murmuring of the Thames flowing in its bed toward the sea, its waters unsettled and agitated by the incoming tide. He found himself teetering backward, his weight levering him over the railing – the brief sensation of falling and of the dark waters mercifully closing over him as he drowned in his own blood.
The pirates heaved the bodies into the river, then yanked the fallen canvas free and dumped it over the side in order to unencumber the deck. The big man, his forehead running blood from the blow that Wise had delivered, took a heavy pistol from within his coat, aimed it into the air, and fired it, the bullet blazing white as it exited the barrel, shooting up into the sky with a long, flaming tail, like a miniature comet. He put the pistol away in his coat, stepped to the wheel, and turned the launch back toward the bay, towing the cutter now.
The rest of the pirates watched sharply for the boy who had gone overside, although by now he would have been swept away with the corpses and so there was little chance of finding him. Within minutes they had run in around the spit of land that hid the bay's northern shore, where they doused the glowing coal fire in the oven with buckets of water until the smoke ran white and then cleared away utterly. Taking to the cutter again, the rain beating down, they towed the launch toward the distant, farther shore, where there stood an acre or two of trees and dense shrubbery along both sides of a wide creek. They took the launch in under the trees and warped it in alongside a low, half ruined dock with a boathouse built over it, a mere hovel of boards and tarred sailcloth, invisible from the bay.
A man in an Inverness cape stood on the dock, waiting for them, having seen the Fenian fire, as it was called, arc up into the sky. He was well satisfied with the behavior of the projectile, one of his more useful inventions, although he would experiment with it further in order to make very certain it wouldn't fail him when he had real need for it. He held a lantern up in front of him now, the light shining on his pale features. There was an evident hump on his back, the cape doing little to hide it, and his face was as pale as a moth, although his hair was black. He walked along the dock to where the kegs were being lifted out of the launch and set down on their sides, two of the men rolling them along the planks toward a wagon that waited on shore, the horses huddled in the rain. The hunchbacked man said nothing, his attention concentrated on the kegs, which he counted carefully. After hanging his lantern on a rusty spike, he took up a mallet and crowbar and pried a stave out of the barrelhead of one of them. He regarded the contents of the keg for a time, peering closely at the bones and bone chips that studded the rubble of coal – one of the bones entire, almost certainly a human clavicle. He dipped his hand into the mix and then withdrew it, looking at the grit on his palm: coal dust, certainly, mixed with dry soil and miniscule bone fragments. He smelled and tasted it, and then dusted his hand on his trousers.
He had been promised a mixture of decomposing coal and fragments of Neolithic human bone, and he was well satisfied with what he found in the keg. If he had been cheated, he would have taken his pound of flesh, quite literally, from the London merchant who had arranged the sale of the contraband coal, despite the entertaining fact that he had refused to pay for the coal until it was delivered to him in London, and so he had no real need to pay for it at all, given that it would never be delivered.