Review: Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters

Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters
Whitechapel Gods by S. M. Peters

Whitechapel Gods
S. M. Peters
Roc, 2008

Whitechapel Gods marks my first foray into the steampunk genre during my steampunk extravaganza this month.  It is perhaps a bit of an odd book for a first choice since it is entirely lacking in airships and heavier on horror then adventure but it is rife with clockwork automatons and steam powered weaponry.  In truth Whitechapel Gods is something like steampunk as envisioned by H. P. Lovecraft or Stephen King.

In a post-industrial London, Whitecapel has been walled off by the strange deific figure known as Grandfather Clock, inscrutible and unwilling consort to the even more unfathomable Mama Engine.  Smoke and toxic gases turn the already dingy atmosphere of Whitechapel into a hostile place while a horrid clockwork disease transforms citizens into horrid amalgams of man and machine; robbing them of any hope of death.  Men given over to Grandfather Clock collect citizens to be added to a monstrous construction of man and machine while silent automatons known as the Boiler Men enforce Grandfather Clocks will and stamps out rebellion.  Amidst this oppressive atmosphere a rag-tag bunch of criminals and patriots seek to kill both gods and free the downtrodden citizens of Whitechapel.  Whitechapel Gods is a novel rife with familiar sights twisted into horrific visages and though the novel suffers from some issues with pacing manages to ensnare its reader with that imagery.

I’ll start with my only major issue with this novel; the pacing.  Whitechapel Gods suffers from trying to do too much in one novel while at the same time managing to not quite do enough.  With the three or four major points of view that he uses Peters attempts to flesh out his world as much as possible and, while he does manage to produce some meaty material, he also manages to dilute the plot of the novel while simultaneously never quite attaining the fleshed out feel he seems to be aiming for.  While his characters certainly feel fleshed out, each with their own backstory and deep history, the necessesary exploration of those backgrounds tends to stall the action of the novel and I for one certainly lost the main thread of the narrative as a result.  Indeed, at the novels climax Peters’ desire to complete the individual narrative arc of each character lent the experience a diluted feeling that deprived the ending of any real heft.

However, pacing problems asside I definately enjoyed my time in Peters’ twisted vision of Whitechapel (perhaps enjoyed is the wrong word?).  Peters does a wonderful job of playing up the horrific nature of his vision and his visceral descriptions of the human/clockwork amalgams create a stomach-churning image while the novel’s late exploration of what it means to be robbed of death adds a bit of heart-wrenching into the mix.  As the novel delves further into the nature of Mama Engine and Grandfather Clock there is a slight tinge of Lovecraft as their alien nature and otherness comes to the fore.  Later, when the machine that forms the mind of Grandfather Clock is revealed we glimpse something that could have come straight out of Hellraiser.  I was also stuck, and I’m not certain why, by Peters’ frequent use of pus in the later half of the novel.  A fact, I suppose, that might serve as warning for those who don’t like gore in their horror.  While Peters certainly doesn’t seem to relish gore he doesn’t shy away from his discriptions of viscera.

While their backstories may occaisonally muddle up the Peters does populate the novel with some strong characters.  The most interesting for me was the former prostitute Missy whose internal dialogues with her former madame are never properly explained and could be written off as mere dementia or something a bit more fantastic in nature.  The push/pull dynamic of the horrors Missy has suffered and her attraction/feelings for rebel leader Oliver creates some wonderful tension and an examination of that relationship could probably fill a book it’s own.  Unfortunatley, Peters however does the character, and that relationship, a huge disservice in the epilogue as far as I’m concerned; I’d go so far as to say that I didn’t need that epilogue at all.  Wither inentionally or not Peters manages to spark my curiosity about the characters he doesn’t examine closely especially the exiled Southern American “gentleman” Heckeler and the blind Phineas whose acute hearing takes on Daredevil like proportions.

While lacking in the adventure aspect that is so frequently espoused by the steampunk aescetic (and nary an airship!) Whitechapel Gods is still firmly entrenched in the steampunk genre.  It takes on a decidedly modern tone simply using its chosen setting as precicely that; rather then try to ape the tone and language of Victorian novel (an important point when I get to review Gail Carriger’s Soulless).  Whitechapel Gods would certainly make a nice Halloween read Whitechapel Gods is by no means a perfect or completely original novel but is certainly worth a look.  While not as strong a debut as some I’ve read it is still a good first novel and warrants keeping an eye for further works by S. M. Peters.

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