In an alternate nineteenth-century Britain, two powerful entities, emotionless and purely logical Grandfather Clock and passionate and creative Mama Engine, have conquered the Whitechapel area of London and now rule it as gods, acting through the human conduit of the Baron. Cut off from the rest of England, the area has been transformed by the gods’ influence into a multilayered, oddly organic industrial structure choked with pollution and patrolled by the gods’ soulless followers, who have traded their vital organs for mechanical devices. Small bands of rebels fight to regain their freedom, but for now they are little more than helpless against the onslaught of enemies that cannot die.
All that changes when Aaron, a member of the rebel forces, steals a coded text that could contain the blueprint for a device that could kill Grandfather Clock. Cornered by Boiler Men, mindless automatons in service of the Baron, Aaron drops the text, where it falls through the levels of Whitechapel until it lands on the lowest, most poisonous, and mutant-infested layer. It’s now a race between the rebels (led by a man named Bailey and his reluctant subordinate Oliver) and the gods’ servants (led by twisted pedophile John Scared) to see who can reach (and survive!) the lower level to find that text first.
Peters constructs a massively detailed world that is both familiar and foreign. The themes of industrial abuse and pollution in a nineteenth-century setting are as old as Dickens, but they retain their poignancy even with Peters’ inclusion of mechanical rats, diseases that slowly turn their victims into machines, and gods who are as willing to murder each other as work together.
Sharp characterization also bolsters a world that, even with its wealth of detail, often threatens to sink underneath its own weight. The gods’ true presence (physical? mental? psychological? magical? interdimensional?) is never satisfactorily explained, so the novel’s end slips a little into incoherence, as it is never truly clear what exactly is going on. Oliver makes for a well-written protagonist, a man young enough to have never known any world but the god-conquered Whitechapel and who has no real ties to Britain, Queen Victoria and the patriotic feelings of his older counterparts. Nevertheless, he knows the world he’s living in could be traded for a better one, so he fights in his own small way to bring down the powers that be.
The only real flaw in this book is the ending, which would be uncouth of me to spoil. Suffice it to say that Peters does such an excellent job of describing the depth of the gods’ influence and their hold on Whitechapel and its citizens, that events in the epilogue never quite ring true. Nevertheless, an unconvincing conclusion aside, S.M. Peters’ Whitechapel Gods is a gorgeously written, endlessly inventive steampunk novel and a truly entertaining read.