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The Witches of Chiswick

by Robert Rankin

(Gollancz, £6.99, 434 pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 22 July 2004.)

Review by Christopher Teague

Steampunk. Gibson and Sterling did it, and now we get the arch-surrealist Rankin giving the sub-genre a go. And what fun you'll cover scanhave in the resulting 430 pages or so. Mind you, don't expect it to make sense - but then, as the author notes in the actual text, he was just making it up has he went along.

In a far-future, not unlike Terry Gilliam's Brazil, we find our hero William Starling discovering a digital wristwatch in the painting "The Fairy-Teller's Masterstroke" by Richard Dadd. From there, he is chased by automata with slightly Germanic accents and big guns, and discovers that the present is a result of the past being controlled by the Chiswick Townswomen's Guild - the Witches in the title.

And they have to be stopped. Travelling back to the late Nineteenth Century, with the aid of Barry the Talking Time Travelling Sprout (and Rankin regular, plus the esteemable Hugo Rune) William discovers just how great the Victorians were. Or, rather, how great they were before the Witches took control, with flying hansom cabs, electric light - space travel even. And all thanks to the fact that Charles Babbage along with Nicholi Tesla were courted by Queen Victoria.

With Rune as William's guide, along with the reader, we get taken on a whimsy-filled journey that encapsulates just about everything we know about the Victorian era; a history lesson told in Rankin's joyous prose. An assortment of characters mingle in and out, from Jack the Ripper to the Invisible Man; Joseph Merrick to Queen Victoria. Even Elvis gains a cameo.

If you're new to Robert Rankin, then this will ease you gently into his literary world of tomfoolery, in-jokes and punnery; if you're a veteran, then you'll still love it. Rankin writes for his growing army of fans, but he hasn't neglected newcomers who may come across this tome on the shelf and ponder...

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