Fiendish Schemes by K.W. Jeter
Fiendish Schemes is a recent (2013) sequel to K.W. Jeter’s classic steampunk novel Infernal Devices which I have previously reviewed. Jeter, who inadvertently coined the term “steampunk” and writes in a style similar to his friend James P. Blaylock, is probably an acquired taste. Personally, I love his droll overblown style, his eccentric and morose characters who tend to be paranoid and suicidal, and his absurd plots. If you’re a fan of Blaylock, Jack Vance, Kage Baker, Lois McMaster Bujold, or Monty Python, I’d suggest giving Jeter a try.
In Infernal devices we met George Dower, the son of a genius inventor who made clockwork and steam-powered devices that George does not understand but that seem to get him into trouble anyway. After the events of Infernal Devices, George left London and went into self-imposed exile. Years later, in Fiendish Schemes, he’s been invited back to London to attend a ceremony in honor of one of his father’s bizarre inventions: walking lighthouses. George is disgusted at the changes he sees in London, for the whole city is in love with this new steam technology and the place is damp and starting to rot, both physically and morally.
After the ceremony, George is about to commit suicide when a man who claims to preach the Gospel to whales shows up to recruit George into a quick money-making venture. Figuring he has nothing left to lose, and can always fall back on his original self-destructive plan, George agrees. Madness, as they say, ensues. George gets sucked into a bizarre scheme involving a randy steam-powered orangutan, a gothic-inspired brothel called “Fex” which is inhabited by “valve-girls” (don’t ask), a scary prime minister who has earned the nickname “The Iron Lady,” anarchists, striking miners, and the American-slang-speaking couple we met in Infernal Devices. George gets dragged all around London and then he gets poisoned, framed, jailed, used as a pawn and a scapegoat, and has his reputation ruined. There are fires, riots, and explosions. There is even an attempted buggering by the aforementioned orangutan. Along the way, George meets all sorts of eccentric people, such as the man who insists that agriculture has ruined society.
The plot of Fiendish Schemes is completely ridiculous. If you need your plots to make sense, then Jeter probably isn’t for you. The appeal here is the tone. It’s absolutely hilarious to listen to George recount even the most mundane events in his pompous self-mocking voice:
A few yards away from the road, yellow thickets of bracken screened me above the waist, affording me sufficient privacy in which to unfasten the front of my trousers. Winter had so recently lain upon the ground that ice crystals still glittered in the mire at my feet. These dissolved into hissing steam as I expressed the nature of my urgent business upon them. Re-doing my garments with coldnumbed fingers, I was bemused to note that the hissing sounds continued even as the small puddle I had created now chilled and seeped into the weedy soil. More intriguingly, the hiss seemed to come from some more distant point, on the opposite side of the low earthen rise before me. To my concern, through the inclement weather’s mist I perceived white clouds roiling upward, as though an otherwise silent army had just completed en masse the same corporeal duties with which I had tasked myself.
Here’s a paragraph that I love. George and another man are escaping out a window and climbing down a drainpipe. At first he thinks they’ve been successful:
…But only for a moment. As I had initially feared, the drainpipe proved inadequate for the purposes to which we had put it. Our combined weight tore it free from the building’s exterior, then it disassembled itself entire, every component section separating from the others.
The use of that carefully crafted wordy prose to calmly relate an urgent situation in which this stuffy man has escaped out a window and is shimmying down a drainpipe that busts into a bunch of pieces makes me laugh out loud. If it doesn’t have that effect on you, Jeter just might not be your thing. The entire book is like this, with George sometimes dispassionately, sometimes sulkily, describing the “parade of squalid curiosities” and the “reign of industrial terror” he’s being exposed to.
One more thing that’s really amusing: when George encounters the terms “meatpunk” and “coalpunk” he is appalled that “these strange, awkward formulations had been introduced into our formerly graceful language.” That’s cute, Mr. Jeter!
Despite the absurdity of the plot, there’s actually quite a bit of social, economic, and political commentary in Fiendish Schemes. Some of this gets a little repetitive, but it still manages to be funny due to Jeter’s constantly droll style.
At first I was disappointed to learn that Michael Page, the narrator of Infernal Devices, was not narrating its sequel and I couldn’t believe that, instead, they had chosen a woman to read it. Justine Eyre really has to work to get her voice deep enough to believably represent George Dower, but she manages it and her cadence and understanding of the humor of the piece is spot on. In the end, I was pleased with her performance. The audiobook is 11.5 hours long.
I’m going to have to give these two a try. And why do I keep confusing K.W. Jeter with a baseball player?