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A Modern Penny Dreadful
on 13 November 2008
Penny Dreadfuls were the Victorian equivalent pulp fiction; disposable magazines (often sold for a penny, hence the name) that contained lurid tales of horror, crime and adventure. Although a 'proper' novel Jonathan Green's 'Unnatural History' very follows in the same tradition. It doesn't pretend to be high art or great literature. Its a tall tale intended to entertain, and it does exactly what it sets out to do.
A mixture of steam punk alternative history, Ryder Haggard-style adventure, Hammer horror and Conan Doyle-ish whodunnit, mixed in with action sequences that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, it often feels like a comic book without pictures (the fact that the author has also written comics might partly explain that). All the characters, from hero Ulysses Quicksilver to the bad guys, are stereotypes of one sort or another, drawn in broad strokes, but this suits the genre and the tone of the book. The same goes for the plot, which is suitably convoluted and packed full of incident. It might also be utterly implausible, but in a setting where dinosaurs still live, robots are commonplace and Queen Victoria is 160 years old, it fits in perfectly.
It might be valid to say that there is a surfeit of ideas on display, with some working better than others. Equally the focus on keeping the plot moving and on almost relentless action means that readers are given very little time to get to grips with the world Green has created. I'm sure this will be corrected in future books, but at times in Unnatural History it can leave your head spinning.
As adventure fiction however, Unnatural History provides great entertainment. Its utterly disposable and over the top at times, but it rockets along and gives you everything that you'd want from this sort of fantastical high adventure. On its own terms therefore it has to be consider a success and worthy of four stars.