Swiftly, By Adam Roberts

Steampunk shenanigans in Victorian London
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The Independent Culture

It's a preposterous suggestion: Gulliver's Travels turns out to be a factual account. The thimble-sized Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians really do exist. The former are enslaved by the English, creating intricate mechanical goods in London's factories. The French have invaded England aided by the giants, who splish through the Thames as though it's a paddling pool. Caught up in this farrago are Abraham Bates, a po-faced Englishman who sympathises with the Lilliputians, and Eleanor Burton, the clever woman married unwillingly to a factory man who keeps his Lilliputian workers locked in hutches. What results is a salty intrigue involving sanguine Brobdingnagians and eerie Lilliputians, European revolutionaries and English turncoats.

Roberts' fantasy is pegged to an underlying realism and eye for detail, stewed in masterful language: a bell tinkles and "some more silver sound sprinkled free"; a headache grips Eleanor's head "like a hoop of suffering". Eleanor's an excellent heroine, shrewd and acerbic, walking through a Victorian world in perpetual stink and motion.

When not conjuring up fictional fancies, Adam Roberts is a Victorian literature professor and his erudition and enjoyment give every page a witty authenticity. You can quite believe in the mini flying machines that convey messages between rich businessmen at opposite ends of Oxford Street.

In a way, Roberts is too gifted a brain for this type of supercharged narrative. He could effortlessly produce a poignant, heavyweight work echoing Middlemarch. But it wouldn't be half as much fun as this.