Review: New Books from James Blaylock

Sometimes it may seem like what I write here comes a bit out of left field, but rest assured there’s always method to my madness. In this case a bit of foreshadowing, or laying the groundwork for what’s to come a bit down the road.

Which brings us the James Blaylock and his work, including his most recent novel, The Knights of the Cornerstone. Blaylock is an outstanding fantasy writer whose works come too infrequently, but are usually worth the wait. Most of his recent novels like The Rainy Season and Paper Grail have fallen into the unique genre of character-driven, whimsical adult fantasy with a contemporary setting reminiscent of the work of his friend and sometime collaborator Tim Powers. The Knights of the Cornerstone is another tale of contemporary Californiam, with offbeat characters in a mundane setting who get involved with supernatural forces and find their heretofore aimless existence defined by the challenges which they face, a theme around which many of Blaylock’s novels are built.

The Knights of the Cornerstone is the story of would-be cartoonist Calvin Bryson, who gets a call from a relative who wants him to take a family heirloom out into the desert to his uncle who lives in New Cypress, a peculiar desert resort town on the Arizona border. Cal takes on the task and finds more than he expected in New Cypress, a town where everyone seems to be a member of the mysterious Knights of the Cornerstone, and which is under siege by dangerous enemies who want to control the occult secrets the Knights guard in their temple. He has to choose whether to continue to stand aside and observe life, or pick a side and fight for something he believes in. Blaylock does an excellent job developing the main characters and making them interesting, especially the character of the town of New Cypress itself. There’s considerably more direct action than there is in most of Blaylock’s novels, especially towards the end when the story comes to a head in a series of violent clashes between the Knights of the Cornerstone and those who want to plunder their secrets. There’s also a bit of romance to round things out.

The Knights of the Cornerstone is a good, quick read and perhaps more approachable for those unfamiliar with Blaylock’s style than some of his other more poetic and evocative novels. It has a more commercial character than much of his earlier writing, and it’s a strange irony that despite his excellent storytelling skills and readability, Blaylock has never found the mass market he deserves and as a result this novel was released by a specialty publisher, likely limiting its exposure and access to the audience which it deserves. Nonetheless, go get a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

Despite the contemporary themes of his most recent novels, those of you who are familiar with Blaylock’s work may be more familiar with him as one of the seminal authors in the Steampunk movement, where modern writers write science fiction from the in a Victorian setting using the science and technology of the pre-electric era, drawing on the tradition of Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells. Blaylock’s novels Homunculus, Lord Kelvin’s Machine and The Digging Leviathan are classics of the genre, and he recently released The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, a collection of related Steampunk short stories. The collection continues the adventures of the eponymous Victorian scientist and inventor who was the hero of Blaylock’s previous novels Homunculus and Lord Kelvin’s Machine. The stories are well written and full of inventive ideas, and the short format is appropriate for a genre whose origins are in serialized fiction and short fiction of the 19th century. The book designers also had the extraordinary good taste to use our Goodfellow font on the cover.

These two books come after several years of no new releases from Blaylock. However, the growing popularity of the Steampunk genre has led to new trade paperback releases of many of his classic novels, so they are widely available for the first time in years. Perhaps we’ll also see more new work from Blaylock soon.

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