I first came across the opening chapters of this oddly charming and compelling tale anonymously posted on Tumblr a couple of years ago. Since then I’d been wondering, off and on, if the full story would ever come to light. Much to my surprise it has, and in a rather strange and mysterious way (more of that later).
Ruprecht von Mallard is a war veteran. Badly wounded in an unspecified European conflict, he now has heavy mechanical legs (with integral blunderbus), and artificial eyes. Too heavy to fly, he can only find the freedom of the skies in his beloved ornithopter. He’s a philanderer and a dandy – and he’s also a duck. In fact all the characters are anthropomorphic animals, including ducks, pelicans, frogs and newts.
We first encounter von Mallard when he’s about to fight a duel with the husband of his latest paramour, Ffyona Smythe-Pelican. From there the adventure goes from one desperate escape to another, with various wild adventures in between, as von Mallard struggles to thwart the evil plans of his final nemesis, Dr Pond.
So far, so good. Superficially this is a glorious romp of an adventure set in a steam-punk world of gigantic airships, cyborg ducks and beautiful heroines. The anonymous author knows how to write, the narrative is witty and engaging, and there are some clever references to modern popular culture. But there’s more to it than that, von Mallard’s philandering is driven by psychological trauma caused by the wounds that crippled him, and Dr Pond, ruling the skies from his aerial dreadnought, the eponymous Brobdingnag, has likewise been brutalised both physically and mentally by the same wars that took so much from von Mallard. The demands of Empire have taken the toll on a generation and the whirlwind is being reaped. As the story progresses the romping adventure remains, but underneath it the darkness grows. The climactic ending is, in its own way, touching, magnificent, and poignant.
So how did I get my copy? This really is the most mysterious thing – one day it simply arrived through my letterbox in a plain brown envelope. Now, I know people can do some clever things with internet IP logging, and it made me wonder – had the author – or more likely the equally anonymous editor – managed to track me down from Tumblr sessions? It would be interesting to know if anyone else who discovered those pages has received their own copy in the post.
This slim volume on my desk looks to be a partial reconstruction of the original, a para-facsimile. Though the cover seems to be a near-perfect reconstruction of the original artwork, (with some slight compression in the vertical plane) the interior is sparse. Beyond a single-page editorial note from the mysterious SPC, and a list of von Mallard’s earlier adventures at the rear (along with reproductions of three original blurbs – Let Slip the Drakes of War, No Sparrow Falls, and Dark Wings at Dawn – there is no hint as to the original publisher, author, or year of publication.
I do wonder if this could actually be a reprint of some lost collection, a minor footnote of Edwardian or WW1 speculative literature. Perhaps the Tumblr chapters are the originals after all, and those modern references in that later chapters could easily be editorial inserts designed to obfuscate the true origins. But why?
Inept amateurism, or wilful obfuscation? I feel in some gentle and amusing way I’m being taunted. Believe what you like. I’ve got my copy and I’m hanging on to it.