Burton & Swinburne in Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon by Mark Hodder – A review by Professor Upsidasium << Prev   Next >>
Correspondent Professor Upsidasium once again returns to Mark Hodder's alternate England in the lat...
By Professor Upsidasium on Jan 03 2012 Category:Media, Literature

Within seconds of opening the front cover of "Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon" not only was I firmly re-entrenched in Mark Hodder’s insanely inventive alternate 1863 England, but the author was also gleefully yanking that same carpet out from under my feet.  Hodder’s epic masterpiece of a finale echoes up and down his self-created timeline where a time-traveler trying to prevent an assassination attempt on the life of Queen Victorian leads instead to her very untimely death and the grandiose reinvention of the historical events that follow.  Herein, Sir Richard Burton never married and settled into a downward spiral of  retirement, but instead became an agent for King Edward intent on solving mysteries both mundane and chrono-mystical in defense of King and Country. 

Burton, with the aid of the reckless, masochistic poet Algernon Swinburne, has so far in previous books repelled the trans-temporal menace of Spring-Heeled Jack (the man responsible for Queen Victoria’s death) and successfully thwarted a series of psychically-incited class riots from burning down all of London.  Burton & Swinburne have become adept at facing menaces not only from the boundaries of time, but from nearby political shores as well, tangling with Russian and Prussian spies in nearly equal measure.

We’ve seen Burton fighting foreign assassins, eugenically created leopard-men, and the mechanically-maniacal forces of technologists; now in Mountains of the Moon we have Burton coming to bear on his largest foe ever, his own past failure to discover the source of the river Nile and the dark secrets that await him there.  The catastrophe of his first expedition not only caused the creation of one of his greatest foes, but has remained a dark blotch on his soul that he intends on wiping out at any cost.  The fact that he’s also squeezing some Empire-saving into the effort this time is almost inconsequential in the face of Burton’s resolve to untangle this largest of evil mysteries.

The titular phrase "mountains of the moon" refers to the actual mountain range of that name in Africa near the Nile's source. Originally named by the local tribesmen, the name was adopted by foreign explorers who agreed that the landscape did indeed appear other-worldly.  In one of those wonderful synchronistical moments, all this just happens to be true; Hodder could not have invented a better name or location as the source of Burton's woes and obsessions.    

In true safari fever, many of his closest friends and compatriots from the first two books set off with him.  Besieged with enough sabotage, spies and mixed motivations to sink an airship, the entourage soon find walking cross-continent towards their goal.  From here, to the end of the book, Hodder gives us a visceral experience of the grueling torment the expedition faces that is nothing short of brutal worship for the people (like the real life explorer Richard Burton) who accomplished these remarkable treks.  Each day brings small victories and heartbreaking setbacks as they race against the forces aligned against them. 

His companions persevere, each of them as determined as Burton, even as they become beset with all manner of illnesses and injuries out of which contracting malaria is only an appetizer.  Hodder’s research into what walking expeditions were like, circa 1860, shines darkly here as he turns his amazing descriptive powers towards the ailments and maladies, dangers and disease faced by the hard-suffering crew force-marching their way towards certain danger with the fate of England, and maybe the world, riding upon their shoulders.  His depictions of tribal politics, religious tensions, and the ravages of the British Empire upon local society are used simply, without irony and without an intrudingly modern point of view.  Hodder lets us see both sides of the culture clash and then neatly moves on to the next scenic tragedy of Burton’s relentless trek to beat his enemies to what we expect to be the treasure central to the previous narratives.

If Mountains of the Moon had only been about this quest to find the secrets buried near the still-undiscovered source of the Nile, Hodder would have had a decent enough narrative to deliver. But this last expedition of Burton’s is not just through the dangerous spaces of African jungles;  Burton also finds himself in not one but two separate time sequences trying to maintain his sanity, recover his stolen memories, and stay alive as he watches the horrifying repercussions of his mission unfold.  But is this because he succeeded on his quests or  because he failed?  Burton has no clue and we experience his vertigo as Hodder wheels us through a whiplash collision of altered present, future and past smashing into each other with inevitable cause-and-effect.

As we have seen in other works by any number of writers, the ending of a story can be the toughest part of all. Getting something to end on a satisfactory note – especially in a time-travel story – can be a daunting and often-failed proposition.  In my opinion, Hodder nails the dismount by giving Burton & Swinburne adventure’s a conclusion appropriate to the tone and nature of the story regardless of how well, or unwell, you might wish the main characters to fare at the final page turn. 

Closing the back cover of Hodder’s alternate “Famous Edwardians” history, I am haunted by the impact of Burton’s actions and the sacrifices of his compatriots – and some of his enemies – that bring us to this final point of the tale.  I am even now planning my rereads of the first two books again to catch everything that I may have missed without the perspective of the last book to guide me.  I definitely recommend this massive tale broken into three parts like one of Hodder’s evil gems; this one will definitely come to possess you, or at least a cherished spot on your shelf or reader.


Professor Upsidasium is a contributor to Steampunk Chronicle.  He uses the Visuatronic Audiographic Steampunk Archive to capture images and sounds of events he has been to and individuals he has had the pleasure of speaking with.  You can follow his ramblings on Twitter or explore the current iteration of the archives on YouTube.


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