Prehistoric Clock

Prehistoric Clock by Robert Appleton is a steam-powered adventure story of the Jules Verne school of adventuring. Not to mention the Jules Verne era of scientific knowledge. But as an adventure story, it’s definitely great fun.

Prehistoric Clock is Victorian-inspired steampunk, so it is set in an alternate British Empire on which the sun has not set, and does not look likely to. The year is 1908, but it is definitely not our 1908. The world is powered, not just by steam, but also by an energy called psammeticum. Great airships rule the skies. And the secretive scientific gents (and a few ladies) of the Leviacrum Council, are the ones who really run the Empire.

Two seemingly unrelated events collide, rather spectacularly. Lieutenant Verity Champlain has promised the loyal crew of the Empress Matilda that she will get them to London, even if it’s a place that she barely remembers and that most of them have never seen. The Empress is an airship of the British Air Corps, and she has been ordered to London from her base in Africa. Her orders are to “protect the pipeline at all costs”.

Lord Garrett Embrey is in London, standing before a Star Chamber within the deep recesses of Grosvenor House. The supposedly “august gentlemen” are Government bureaucrats, but Embrey knows they are merely puppets of the Leviacrum Council. It has only been 18 months since his father and uncle were convicted of trumped-up charges of treason, and these same “gentlemen” have manufactured evidence against him as well.

Embrey whisks the forged letters away from the blackguards and flees the premises, one step ahead of the steam-powered Black Maria dogging his steps. He has a yacht at the marina, and he’s planning to leave England, hopefully for good. Now he knows there’s nothing left for him.

Professor Cecil Reardon manages to fool the Leviacrum Council’s inspection one last time. As soon as he has ushered their harridan of an investigator, Miss Polperro, out the door, he stops caring. All of his supposed work for the Council has been a grand hoax.

The Leviacrum Council has been building two great Leviacrum Towers, one in London, and another on the Benguela Plateau. Verity Champlain’s airship came from Benguela. Garrett Embry’s family was sacrificed on the altar of secrecy because they asked questions about that tower.

Cecil Reardon was supposed to be working on methods of harnessing Leviacrum power, in anticipation of a great event. Instead, he worked on something of his own. As soon as Miss Polperro left his factory, he flipped the switch on his Time Clock, in hopes of returning to the time before his wife and son died.

Professor Reardon’s invention works spectacularly but not accurately. London is cleaved in two. Big Ben is carved through the middle, and time is symbolically, as well as literally, shattered. The district surrounding Reardon’s factory is transported, not just a few decades back in time, but centuries, back to the Cretaceous period. Dinosaurs roam the earth.

Some humans survive the transition to this world of adventure. The Professor is at the epicenter. Unfortunately for him, Miss Polperro and her band of Inquisitors are trapped within the cone of transferrance. Verity Champlain’s airship is dragged out of the sky by the storm the time slip produces.

As for Garrett Embry, he is caught just barely inside the blast range with the young son of an ice cream truck driver. The boy’s father was killed in the separation. To Embry, the brave new/old world is a much better adventure than the trial he barely escaped, even with pterodactyls swooping out of the sky at every turn.

But the intrepid band of time wanderers cannot survive long in the terrifying past. The Professor must find a way to reverse the time clock’s trajectory, but he will only have one opportunity to get it right. And only if the dinosaurs don’t eat them first!

Escape Rating B: Jules Verne and H.G. Wells would be so proud! Prehistoric Clock reads very much like something of the Verne school of adventure writing, and there is a definite nod to Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth at the end. Of course the Clock itself is a time machine of the Wells’ persuasion, without the Eloi and Morlock, but Wells’ time traveler doesn’t suffer the same sad backstory as motivation as Professor Reardon.

The truly fascinating character in Prehistoric Clock is Verity Champlain. A female airship officer wasn’t usual, but her crew did not merely respect her, but found her so compelling that they gave her a particular honorific title, Eembu. It means “trousers”. Meet her and you’ll find out why.

The ending is open enough that there could be a sequel. I sincerely hope so.

The Mysterious Lady Law

The Mysterious Lady Law by Robert Appleton has been one of those books that’s always looked interesting every time I’ve seen it mentioned. I’ve just never had an excuse to read it until now. As I started to read Mr. Appleton’s latest steampunk story, Prehistoric Clock, I had this niggling thought that Clock and Lady Law might be set in the same universe. That was all the excuse I needed and it was a pretty good excuse. The Mysterious Lady Law turned out to be a pretty good story, too.

The story is about one woman’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall. It begins at the ceremony where Harriet Law receives her honors, and is made Lady Law. With the assistance of Mr. Horace Holly, Lady Law spectacularly foils an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. But all is not as it seems.

In his younger years, Mr. Holly was an adventurer, just like the more celebrated Allan Quatermain. Even more interesting, Mr. Holly’s assistant Josh is missing. And Josh has been studying the houses in Lady Law’s neighborhood for emissions of a strange substance known as psammeticum. Whatever this energy is, some house on Lady Law’s street is sending out a lot of it.

A girl named Georgina is brutally murdered the night of Lady Law’s honors. Lady Law promises Georgy’s sister, Julia, that she will personally find justice for Julia. What Lady Law doesn’t say is that she knew Georgy herself because Georgy was her housecleaner. And Georgy saw too much.

Julia wants justice for her sister. The police want to know how Lady Law always manages to get one step ahead of them. The police sergeant who is handling Julia’s case wants to know why Lady Law wouldn’t help him find out who murdered his wife several years ago. But mostly, he wants to keep Julia safe. And Julia, she thinks Lady Law is a little too good to be true.

So when Horace Holly discovers that Lady Law is trying to throw all the suspicion for Georgy’s murder onto his assistant Josh, Holly, Julia and Sergeant Al Grant set Lady Law up for a fall. Finding out what those psammeticum emissions were all about? Well that turned out to be the biggest surprise of all.

Escape Rating C+: I enjoyed this story, but I wanted to know more about this particular steampunk London. The problem I usually have with the very short novellas is that there just isn’t enough space to explain how we got where we are. The good ones like Lady Law tease me too much.

Characters and agencies from Lady Law do appear in Prehistoric Clock. It’s definitely the same world, so I’m glad I read Lady Law. I’m hoping that between the two stories I’ll see enough of the underpinnings of Mr. Appleton’s steampunk world to satisfy my cravings.

Sparks in Cosmic Dust

Sparks in Cosmic Dust by Robert Appleton is a rollicking, adventurous science fiction romance. The emphasis is on the adventure and the science fiction, not so much on the romance. But that was fine by me.

Sparks is the story of five hard-luck characters in search of their tickets to fortune. None of them are interested in fame. In fact, a couple of them have already been there and done that. What they all want is a one-way ticket out of hardscrabble and into the ranks of the mega-rich, as well as a one-way ticket back to civilization from the intergalactic boondocks.

Grace Peters has the map and the ship. The map leads to a planet chock-full of a hard-to-mine but very desirable mineral used to power rocketship engines. Grace is a crusty old woman who has been there, done that and seen and done everything. She also can’t resist commenting about it.

Clay and Lyssa are both on the run. Neither of them knows what the other is on the run from, and neither of them cares. But Clay’s secrets are a lot bigger and more important than Lyssa’s.

Varina and Solomon are also on the run. Solomon is mostly running from his immaturity and insecurity. But Varina, Varina has lots of secrets she needs to keep track of, and hers catch up to her even before Clay’s catch up to him.

But all those secrets, and all that running, mean that everyone is more than happy to take off with Grace to mine very secret and very expensive rocks for three months, just to get away from being chased.

Five people, all alone on an otherwise deserted planet. Relationships forged out of dire necessity start to unravel. So do people.

Escape rating B: This was a good read.  Grace is an absolute hoot. She’s everyone’s crazy aunt. Very crazy. Everyone in this story had lots of secrets, and they all got revealed when it had maximum value for the story. It did keep me guessing on a couple of things right up to the end. The story is much more about the adventure, and about the power of greed than it is about anything else. The romance is very much secondary but that suited the story.

For an extremely interesting take read Heather Massey’s comments on Sparks in Cosmic Dust over at The Galaxy Express. She saw the story as an homage to John Huston’s classic western, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While your mileage may vary on the comparison, her commentary on science fiction romance is always fascinating.