Author: S.M. Peters
Published: Roc Fantasy (2008); an imprint of Penguin Books
For a novel to blend elements of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror, this one had plenty of ingredients to gain my favor, but after wading through Whitechapel Gods I found that the recipe looked better in theory than in practice.
I first became interested in the book late last year with my growing awareness of the sub-genre called steampunk. Seeing the cover art (by Cliff Nielsen) and reading the synopsis for this novel helped peak my curiosity too.
The story takes place in an alternate Victorian London, where Whitechapel has been quarantined, literally walled off after a strange disease afflicts the public, and two god-like entities inflict their will on the area (Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock). The disease known as "the clacks" slowly turns a person into a mechanical monstrosity, with metal gears and pipes replacing muscle and bone. And everyone in Whitechapel knows someone with the clacks, if not inflicted by it themselves.
People are oppressed and impoverished as Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock impose their wills and conflicting agendas on Whitechapel. Mama Engine is in the middle of her "Great Work" and refashioning Whitechapel into a gritty and grotesque landscape, while Grandfather Clock keeps a kind of orderliness through his own minions and his all-seeing presence.
There's already been one failed resistance, led by our protagonist, Oliver Sumner. But now there's word of a secret weapon capable of destroying Grandfather Clock, and possibly Mama Engine as well--not to mention the possibility of a new third god that is emerging in the bowls of Whitechapel. Which is where the main plot kicks in, as Oliver and his ragtag crew of freedom fighters go on a mission to track down and steal the weapon.
The book is fast-paced and managed to keep everything moving along towards the inevitable showdown. It all played out much in the way you might expect a cinematic experience to go, with that blockbuster kind of intensity through several scenes. However, I found it hard to make any kind of emotional attachment to the characters in this book.
Oliver Sumner was a decent hero, even though he was a bit too sentimental and self-defeating at times, but I found the novel's tone didn't hold as well for me when the story wasn't being told through his point of view. In fact, the moments experienced through his love interest Missy's eyes, the story feels downright bathetic or maudlin--the climax with her really grated on me with her inner turmoil--and it came to a point where I'd been fine with her demise if it meant not having to suffer through her internal monologue anymore.
And the spiderweb of villains and pseudo-villains and their points of view turned the novel into a bit of a soup. I would have preferred a less diverging narrative in a quick-paced story like this.
Aside from a couple of supporting characters--Tommy was a real standout for me with his lummox-like personality and humor--no one beyond the main characters felt particularly real to me. Either they seemed like cardboard cutouts or faceless automatons serving the plot and nothing else. For the Boiler Men (think mechanical foot soldiers you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley), it was fine, but characters that appeared sporadically yet played their own integral roles were like set pieces.
I think steampunk fans, and others accustomed to this genre, will warm up to this title much more than me. Horror fans may even find something to grab onto, as there are some moments in the book that are very eery or gruesome. But the plot gets muddled as it goes, so be prepared for that. Readers run the risk of getting into this book and not latching onto the characters as well as they should because they feel too ... trope-ish?
It may be a book I'll have to revisit in a year or so--just to see if I take to it better--but if there's a sequel in the works I'll pass for now.