BY NICO VREELAND
Author: S.M. Peters
Roc (Penguin), 2008
Best ebook deal: Fictionwise
Whitechapel Gods is about as steampunk as a novel can get. It’s about an alternate-history Victorian London, in which flesh-and-blood people rub elbows (and trade bullets) with robotic people who have copper nerves and oil-pumping hearts. Flesh people can contract a disease called “the clacks” that changes them into cyborgs, or sometimes they’re captured by the enemy and turned into cyborgs, which also corrupts their minds somehow.
That’s as literally as you can create the world of a steampunk story. Unfortunately, it’s also about the extent of the inventiveness of this novel, unless you count the names of the leaders of the cyborgs, Mama Engine and (brace yourself) Grandfather Clock. That’s right, a pun. Just one. And a bad one, that clangs around annoyingly in the narrative as the scheme to overthrow Engine and Clock heats up. And that’s not the only annoying thing.
There aren’t any physical descriptions of characters in this novel. Peters also has an aversion to actually saying what’s happening during action sequences, or just about any other time. Instead, he writes around things, in what appears to be an attempt to be artistic. Instead it just comes off as vague and wispy, an unmemorable story about unimportant events. It’s acutely fictional.
Here’s a sample:
Oliver scrambled to reload.
“I send you to your places in hell,” Bergen growled. Oliver grabbed Tom by the suspenders and dragged him back.
The noise alone shattered all the windows at the front of the building. The round burst one cloak into strips of red and brass. A steam cloud steaked after the bullet, cracking with white electricity, which lanced through the whole crowd of canaries. As one, they spasmed and dropped, smoking and twitching, to the floor.
“Mother of Jesus!”
Oliver didn’t know who’d said that.
Oliver doesn’t know who said it. I don’t know who said it. And I’m willing to bet the author doesn’t know who said it.
I also can’t really visualize what Bergen’s holding, or exactly how steam and electricity killed this innumerable crowd of enemies. I don’t know where Oliver is dragging Tom “back” to. And I don’t know where they are, even whether they’re inside (above the floor) or outside (next to the front of the building).
It might seem like I’m nitpicking, but the novel never becomes palpable or memorable with writing like this. The characters are never more than their exaggerated primary traits, and the story itself becomes just an unshaped string of events, like a police report.
This kind of vague nibbling at language bespeaks a lack of talent, a lack of imagination, and a lack of work on the part of the author. Ultimately, a solid premise gets bogged down in the execution, and even die-hard fans of steampunk won’t find an enjoyable experience in this novel.
Similar books you might like: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (none of these are really steampunk, but they’re all much better sci-fi than Whitechapel)