Infernal Devices by KW Jeter

(7.0/10)

Infernal Devices: a mad Victorian fantasy by KW Jeter. Jeter is often credited, erroneously, with kicking off the sci-fi sub-genre Steampunk. To be accurate it was Jeter who first coined the phrase, in a letter to the sci-fi magazine Locus, to describe the theme of both his and his chum Tim Powers’ novels. The origin of Steampunk as a genre came, obviously from Victorian sci-fi, HG Wells and the like, but really began to evolve in the late sixties and early seventies with novels by Michael Moorcock (The Nomad of the Air series) and others. Infernal Devices is, nonetheless, a key novel in the profile of the genre and, hand in hand with The Anubis Gates and The Difference Engine created the interest that stimulated the avalanche of Steampunk novels over the last decade.

Infernal Devices recounts the story of George Dower, who inherits a shop of clockwork devices from his late father, along with a cranky servant, Creff. Cringing in the wake of a local scandal wherein automatons made by his father went amok in a church (the wonderfully dubbed Patented Clerical Automata), George is visited by a mysterious Ethiope. When the Ethiope is injured in the shop but bleeds only saline George is propelled into a fast-paced adventure wherein he uncovers layer after layer of bizzarity relating to his late father’s work. The book is jammed with fabulous touches - intelligent automata, wonderful characters (especially the conniving Mr Scape and brazen Ms McThane), the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice and the mythical selkies. The tale is recounted from a first person POV in the style of the period, which initially makes for slow reading, but once one gets used to it allows for wonderful humour. Let’s face it, no-one can do the moral outrage and political incorrectness like an indignant Victorian. In many places it reminded me of the Victorian scenes in Moorcock’s The Dancers at the End of Time. As readers we are so familiar with the tenets of Victorian society, primarily from Dickens, that satirising them is almost second nature. It is a sobering point,however, that the digs at religious outrage and the suppression of scientific achievement - via the Ladies Union and the Godly Army - are remarkably relevant to our modern world. In places the book almost descends into farce, and it was this aspect of it that I struggled with. George seems to stumble from one area of chaos to another, and it felt a little wearing by two thirds through the novel. However, Jeter rescues it in the finale for me when he ties together all the plot strands perfectly and the book left me with a sense that I’d read something truly memorable.

I’d recommend this book beyond simple curiosity for the place it holds in Steampunk history. It is a witty, amusing, interesting book which will hold your attention and oozes style. I'd give it 7/10 stars.

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