The Return of the Discontinued Man, by Mark Hodder

I normally don’t do reviews of books in series after the first one, but the books in Mark Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne are so unique and so terrific that I can’t resist telling people around them. This series is a key part of my list of “This Book Will Mess You Up” recommendations.

The Return of the Discontinued Man

In 2202, Edward Oxford is interviewed following his invention of revolutionary scientific devices. The interviewer mentions that an ancestor once tried to assassinate Queen Victoria back in 1837. The thought needles Oxford so much that he drives himself to invent a time travel device to go and talk the ancestor out of it. Once he started popping up in Victorian England, he started influencing history. He sparked advances in steam technology and genetics, a world-ending world war, pissed off human-hating lizards, and thoroughly screwed up the timeline. Sir Richard Francis Burton and his friend, poet Algernon Swinburne, have been fighting Oxford and the side-effects of his time travel for centuries now.

Time is still in flux when we rejoin Burton in one version of 1860 in The Return of the Discontinued Man. Strange version of the original Oxford have started popping up across London, hunting for Burton—but they’re not sure why. Meanwhile, Charles Babbage, Daniel Gooch, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel have been working on the various versions of Oxford’s time suit to try and figure out how it works. When they switch the machine on for the first time, Burton starts to slide through time. Infinite Babbages are turning on the machine at the same time. Infinite Brunels are disabled in the resultant explosion. Burton himself is sometimes a hero and sometimes a villain in these alternate timelines. His time jaunts are the result of a mysterious and addictive tincture made of a tree that will be familiar to readers of past books.

The first third of the book can be bewildering because of all time jaunts. Once Burton and his allies work out what’s going on, Burton comes up with a two-pronged attack on Oxford to stop all this nonsense once and for all (if Hodder allows that to happen, of course). Babbage and Gooch will create a time-traveling ship to take Burton and his party to the future to stop Oxford before he even starts. The other part of the plan is for the members of Burton’s Cannibal Club to take the long route through history to provide support along the way.

The ship Burton et al. travel on, the Orpheus, isn’t powerful enough to jump all the way to 2202. They make several 54 year jumps. Things aren’t so strange in 1914, but 1968 throws them all for a loop. The descendants of the Cannibal Club let the time-traveling team know that Oxford’s insanity is still influencing time. Things get even worse in 2022 and worse and worse with each stop. As I read, I could see shades of 1984, Brave New World, and The Time Machine. Oxford’s influence, via something called the Turing Fulcrum, have created a monstrous underclass manipulated by drugs and propaganda to work without revolting. The world of 2202 is hellish.

What I love about each one of the entries in the Burton and Swinburne series is that even though they all had the same starting point, they all go in new directions. Hodder is fantastically imaginative. Even though you have no idea how Burton and his friends are going to make it out of this fresh dilemma, Hodder finds a way that startles and entertains.

Too much? I don’t care. I love this series.

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