by K. W. JeterOne of the hallmarks of steampunk is an obsession with impossible devices. The genre is full of anachronistic assemblages of brass cogs and gears, from the cute to the monstrous, doing things steam-age technology couldn't possibly achieve. But for George Dower, an almost-competent watch repairman, such things hold little attraction. He's the son of an inventor, but he hasn't inherited his father's passion or flair for the mechanical. Instead he works on his father's appliances, fixing the few he can understand and turning away those he doesn't. He does a poor trade.
Then a strange man with skin like brown leather enters his shop with one of his father's contraptions. The man seems to bleed brine. Dower is baffled by the device, but his curiosity is piqued by an unusual coin and a pair of odd-talking people who try to rob him. Dower follows the trail of a deepening mystery to Wetwick, a part of London that isn't on any maps. Lots of people try to warn him to stay away, or dissuade him from following up his inquiries. A dirty smog of scandal seems to envelop Wetwick's unsavoury-looking inhabitants, and no matter who Dower asks no-one is willing to explain why.
Dower's travels lead him through skanky gin dens, churches bedecked with fishing gear for bizarre ceremonies, and the lair of a science-obsessed madman. His life is threatened, but he's determined to solve the mysteries his father left for him. It's a story with lots of facets and a plethora of factions who often tend to pit themselves against the unlucky Dower. No matter which way he turns, someone is usually out to get him. He's rarely in control or in possession of a plan. He seems to blunder from one disaster to the next. He's a bit too passive and stolid to make a really compelling character, unfortunately. However, George's English reserve is a source of a great deal of the novel's humour.
Dower's character contrasts sharply with Graeme Scape and Jane McThane, a couple of confidence tricksters who seem to be on no-one's side but their own. Jane in particular is able to scare Dower rigid with no more than a look. But the story is full of eccentrics, spies, brothel keepers, lowlifes, and other larger-than-life people who pursue the prim and clueless watch-mender. The story whirrs with action, quite a lot of it farcical. When appliances run amok the results can be quite funny, although it's not always effectively scary. But when Dower gets wind of a device designed to break the world apart in a terrible cataclysm his investigations take on a new level of urgency.
It's a complex plot, made richer by a number of characters who are not only more than they seem, but who are inclined to wear masks upon masks. The narrative is peppered with crazy devices left by Dower's late father, who seems to live on through his legacy of chaotic creations. One of the best of these is his flying machine, which gets modified with sheep carcasses into a grisly airborne terror. It's one of several absurd, slapstick moments that lighten the mood considerably. However none of them match the hilarious climax that had me laughing out loud.
This is a high-spirited adventure full of thrills, spills and good humour. But Dower's personality is a touch too staid and conservative to be truly magnetic. It means he's a great comic foil for some of the more outlandish characters, but it also means he's not the most compelling character himself.
27th July 2011
Review © Ros Jackson