by S.M. Peters
Review by Andrea Johnson
Roc Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451461933
Date: 05 February 2008 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Grandfather Clock, a clockpunk horror wonder, sees all that happens beneath every clock face in the city. Families and shop owners without a clock in every room can be considered traitorous, and can be harassed or arrested at any moment by his Goldcloaks, men who have given their lives and natural bodies to Grandfather Clock's cause of strict logic and perfect motion. Mama Engine lives forever in the Stack, a black-cloud-belching prison in the center of the city. She requires human bodies to work her engines and power her machines. The orphans and thieves of the city know if they are ever caught by Mama Engine's Blackcloaks, their humanity will be lost to the Stack. For some children and residents of Whitechapel, however, this comes as relief. They have yet to learn there are worse things than death. Grandfather Clock and Mama Engine are not people; they are the Whitechapel Gods. And Baron Atlas Hume and beggar king John Scared are their prophets.
In S.M. Peters' fantastically re-rendered, slum-ridden Victorian Whitechapel, the world is ruled by steam, metal and oil. Most residents of the city have been affected in some way by the Clacks, a mechanical disease where the body is slowly infected with gears, machinery, oil and steam. This is romantic steampunk gone lethal.
When viewed from afar, this police state is ripe for rebellion. But how to rebel against metal men with powerful human counterparts? How to keep your secrets from the state when their metal men can put a wire in your brain and find out everything you know?
When last a rebellion was started, nearly accidentally, by Oliver Sumner, thousands of townspeople were massacred in the course of a few hours, for metal men have no interest in mercy. It's been five years, and Oliver and his small crew of informants and friends now report to Winfred Bailey, a community leader of sorts. (Bailey may be a glorified gangster, but he does take care of his own.) When Bailey's best spy, Aaron, is captured in an attempt to steal a machine-killing code, there is no way of knowing how much Grandfather Clock can get out of Aaron's mind. When Bailey and his closest confidants are captured by Baron Hume's boilermen, any hope of rebellion falls to Oliver, his crew of misfits, and Missy, his girlfriend with a violent past.
The minds of Aaron, Oliver, and Missy are all infected and exposed to the Gods, but not in ways you might expect. In his mental prison, Aaron has been adopted by a third God -- a bastard child born of, then spurned by Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock. This nameless child simply wants his pain to end, and allows Aaron new life in exchange for the promise to help him. Oliver is accidentally (or not) introduced to an avatar of Mama Engine, and she decides he will be her new paramour and prophet, for she has grown bored of the corrupted and vicious John Scared. Insulted and vengeful, Scared hypnotizes Missy into murdering Sumner and exposing his plots. All this plus Bailey's unfinished rebellion quickly becomes a race to see who will win and who will live.
The plot gets more complex from there, but it is highly enjoyable, full of action and intrigue, rich descriptions of the Whitechapel underbelly, fickle gods and goddesses, and the hidden child: the third part and final part of this deadly puzzle. While the "black hats" of the story are well and truly bad guys infused with painful blind faith, our "white hats" are more gray hats -- they get scared, they make mistakes, they have weaknesses, they sometimes have hazy morals, and they are always afraid to die. Peters' inclusion of a mechanical disease adds an extra dimension of fascinating grotesqueness to the lives of his characters. Those affected by the disease often grow mechanical limbs, thickening their skin, strengthening their bodies, allowing them to work highly skilled jobs without fear of injury and get more money to feed their families, while all the time it is slowly killing them, turning them into the mechanical enemies of the common people.
I highly recommend this book to any reader who enjoys steampunk. For readers who aren't quite sure about taking a plunge into this subgenre of occasionally dystopic fantasy, S.M. Peters' Whitechapel Gods might be the best steampunk out there right now. I happily put it up there with my favorites from Tim Powers and China Mieville, as the first thing I wanted to do when I finished S.M. Peters' debut novel was read it again.