Whitechapel Gods

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: S.M. Peters

Published: 2008

Reviewed: 2008-07-20

Publisher: Roc

Following my trend of reading genre-breaking novels, my most recent
reviewing read is "Whitechapel Gods," a novel that can only be
described as Victorian steampunk horror. I believe it is Mr. Peters'
first novel, and for such an effort it was very good. I'm not sure,
however, that I'd bother to read a second.

The basic setup is that something bizarre and terrible has happened to
Victorian London: entities known as "Grandfather Clock" and "Mama
Engine" have taken over the Whitechapel section of London, walled it
off into an impregnable machine-run hell, and are gradually doing
something horrible with the aid of their willing slaves amongst the

The imagery is vivid and grotesque: servants of Mama Engine have their
hearts ripped out and replaced by little open furnaces that somehow
keep them magically alive. The followers of Grandfather Clock lose
body parts to brass gears instead. Ordinary citizens get the
"clacks," a dread disease that slowly turns them into clockwork,
replacing blood with grease, etc. Whitechapel is a smoggy industrial
hell, a towering maze of elevated streets, skyscrapers, and cable cars
where everyone walks around with masks and goggles and the ladies wear
"ash hats" to keep their clothing from being too soiled.

The story is one of revolt by the humans, both loyal servants of the
Queen and locally-born rabble (of which our hero is one). And there's
some love story bits and personal growth and such woven in too.
Mostly, however, it's an exploration of industrial nightmare.

I think it's best to think of this book not as a literal storytelling,
but as some sort of allegory. That could make the gods and their
servants make sense---they are *never* explained, and only get weirder
as the complications of the story progress and new elements are
introduced. But if so, why all of the wallowing in pus and mingled
pools of blood and oil, and why the ill-fitting happy ending? If it's
just an adventure story, why all of the grandiose themes left not
quite resolved?

In the end, this book felt like it hadn't quite made up its mind what
to be, or why it was written. Locally, it was all quite well done,
and I think Mr. Peters shows promise as an author. Indeed, I'm only
so critical of the novel because it has entered into that uncanny
valley where it's too serious and literary to read as a light novel
that doesn't need to make sense, yet not quite coherent enough to
survive being held to a higher standard. And really, why all the pus?