This is a blog with spoiler free reviews. Most will be Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror, but there will be some books in other genres, including the occasional Non-Fiction review. There is an ongoing series of Cover Reveal Round-Ups, and sometimes I'll write an article on something that interests me.

14 October, 2013

REVIEW: FIENDISH SCHEMES

Cover by John Coulthart

FIENDISH SCHEMES
(INFERNAL DEVICES 2)
BY
K.W. JETER

ISBN: 978-0-76537-402-8
Pages: 350
Publisher: Tor Books
Published: 15 October 2013

On the cover:
(Taken from the publisher's website.)

The world Dower left when he went into hiding was significantly simpler than the new, steam-powered Victorian London, a mad whirl of civilization filled with gadgets and gears in the least expected places. After accepting congratulations for his late father's grandest invention—a walking, steam-powered lighthouse—Dower is enticed by the prospect of financial gain into a web of intrigue with ominously mysterious players who have nefarious plans of which he can only guess.

If he can locate and make his father’s Vox Universalis work as it was intended, his future, he is promised, is assured. But his efforts are confounded by the strange Vicar Stonebrake, who promises him aid, but is more interested in converting sentient whales to Christianity—and making money—than in helping George. Drugged, arrested, and interrogated by men, women, and the steam-powered Prime Minister, Dower is trapped in a maelstrom of secrets, corruption, and schemes that threaten to drown him in the chaos of this mad new world.


   This is the sequel to Jeter's 1987 novel Infernal Devices (review). This book doesn't follow directly on from the previous one though, so you can jump straight to this one without a problem.

   Jeter is perhaps best known for inventing the term Steampunk, and this novel quickly shows it belongs to that genre by introducing a pretty fantastic steam-driven contraption very early on. Mind you, we are talking the original style of Steampunk here, there's a complete lack of werewolves or vampires.
   This story is firmly set in Victorian times, but not the rose-coloured version that we see in some modern Steampunk. Jeter's alternate 19th century Britain is a much darker place than that. There's room in this novel for the darker sides of industrial progress, and it doesn't ignore the plights of the working classes. This makes for a realistic alternate historical setting, at least when it comes to the societal side of things.

   While the setting is socially realistic, Jeter chooses to stretch things a bit beyond realism in some of the technology, and especially in this technology's interaction with humans. This is where the novel in some ways leaves Steampunk and veers into Weird Fantasy territory. Not that the former is ever gone from the novel, the latter is added to it.
   The weirdness of some aspects of the setting is something that really stuck with me, there are some really bonkers ideas in here. It does require a bit more of the reader to accept the weird things in this novel than perhaps is usual in Steampunk. But to me that is really a strength.
   Jeter's alternate Victorian London is in many ways an alien place, there's more than "window-dressing" that makes this London different to our London. The "steam" is much more integrated here than is usual, and the changes it has caused are huge. The technology also has effected the setting in a really significant way. All of which are done well, and in my opinion are significant strengths in this book.

   There is more to good Alternate History than just having a good setting. Without a story to back that up you are left with nothing much more than a technical manual. The story here is a very interesting one, and it makes great use of the world it is set in. The Weird Fantasy aspect of the novel is certainly present in the story as well as in the technology. It doesn't take long before we are introduced to concepts that requires a bit of outside the box thinking.
    The weirdness is also a reason why it's near impossible to predict what comes next in the story. After being introduced to a plot early on, the reader more or less just has to try to keep up with the twists and turns of the narrative. This is actually a great strength of the story. Unpredictability is a watchword here, and not knowing what happens on the next turn of a page is part of what makes this a very compelling read. It's not the only thing though, it really is a fascinating story for those that can handle all the weirdness.
   Our guide through this story, George Dower, is very much the person at the centre of events. Very little happens without him present, or him hearing about it. The latter is because Dower is the only viewpoint character of the story. This works very well on the story level, and adds a certain amount of suspense by not letting us know anything outside of what Dower himself is either experiencing, or is aware of. It is also a style choice that can make this book a bit of a hit or miss experience.

   Jeter has written this novel in a very distinct style, one that is also there in Infernal Devices. It takes some getting used to, as it is a step away from how modern SFF books are usually written. The style here is very Victorian in feel, something that I suppose could make the book feel old-fashioned. I however think it adds quite a lot to the atmosphere of the novel. The first person perspective becomes very close to what is happening because it gives you the feeling of reading something that is part of that time - even though what you read about is definitely not part of something that happened in our reality at that time.
   But as I mentioned above this can be hit or miss. The first person perspective means that there is quite a lot that has to be related to Dower, and depending on your personal preferences these passages can become a bit too much. I had some problems with it at first, not because it was badly done but because it does make the novel feel slow at times. However, when I got into this style of writing - because this is a feature, not a bug - I stopped having any problems with them.
   When you do get into the style, and the story starts flowing, it becomes natural that you have some wordy passages that explain things to our protagonist. And I must say that in retrospect I not only thought this worked very well, but I can't really see how the same effect could be accomplished by doing it in any other way.

   Overall this a novel that is a great example of Steampunk as Alternate History, and the added Weird Fantasy aspects makes this feel very much fresh despite the old-fashioned style it is written in. Jeter gives us something quite different from what is expected from modern Steampunk, and this novel is all the better for that. It may not be the easiest book in the world to get into, but when you do it does reward you for the slight effort.
   This is a thrilling ride into a very strange Steampunk world, and I would heartily recommend this to anyone who likes either Steampunk or Weird Fantasy. Jeter shows he is still a master of the SFF subgenre whose name he coined,
  

NOTE: I got an e-ARC of this book from the publisher/NetGalley.


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