S.M. Peters’ Whitechapel Gods is a debut novel that I would have passed over if not for its eye-catching cover by artist Cliff Nielsen. Like Stephen Hunt’s The Court of the Air and Jonathan Barnes’ The Somnambulist, Whitechapel Gods takes place in a fantastical Victorian setting. In this case, the backdrop is 19th century London, specifically the district of Whitechapel — that is, a Whitechapel like you’ve never seen before, walled off from the rest of the city and transformed into a “steampunk-driven hell” where humanity suffers under the tyrannical rule of the ancient gods Mama Engine and her consort Grandfather Clock. We’re talking about a world where dissenters are crushed under the heels of man/machine hybrids such as the Gold & Black cloaks, and the unstoppable Boiler Men; where clocks act as portals for the all-seeing eye of Grandfather Clock; and where there are things much worse than death such as eternally serving Mama Engine in her Great Work. If that’s not bad enough, there’s also a disease called “clacks” that transforms flesh into gears & metals, and Old Whitechapel where if the air doesn’t kill you then the Ticker Hounds, nesses, clickrats or Frankensteins will. In other words, it’s a world without any freedom or hope.
Into this bleak milieu — which partly evokes H.R. Giger, The Matrix, and various steampunk-influenced videogames, anime, and comic books — we have a resistance that has finally gotten the break they need, a weapon that could actually kill Grandfather Clock. Of course, they’ll have to recover it first from the bowels of the very dangerous Old Whitechapel, and do so before the maniacal John Scared — the weapon’s original owner — can get his hands on it and without getting killed by the Baron’s Boiler Men who are determined to stop them at any cost. Even if they accomplish all that, they’ll still need to construct the weapon and infiltrate the Chimney — the heart of Mama Engine’s Great Work — in order to activate it, and that’s not even taking into account the problem of how to deal with Mama Engine or the third god that is now making its presence felt.
Told over the course of two days and through multiple point-of-views, Whitechapel Gods moves along at a vigorous pace that feels very much like watching a movie or playing a videogame. In fact, Whitechapel Gods shares many similarities — both positive and negative — with such visual mediums including comic books. For instance, the action scenes are stylish, elaborate, and over-the-top. The plot meanwhile, while cool in a geeky kind of way, is admittedly thin and relies on numerous deus ex machinas like Aaron who can see into the essence of things, the drug mei kuan, and characters who have a hard time dying. Speaking of which, Whitechapel Gods features many larger-than-life characters that would look good on the big screen or coming out of your Xbox 360 + PS3, but are a bit lacking in the development department. Still, between such memorable personalities as Bergen, a statuesque German hunter with a shameful secret; Missy, a former whore haunted by voices; Oliver, ex-leader of the Uprising and the key to defeating the gods; the goblin-like villain John Scared with his doomsday plot; and the Faustian-like Baron Hume who speaks in poetic riddles, it’s hard to complain.
In the end, what can I say… I’m just a huge fan of the whole Victorian/steampunk setting, so even though Whitechapel Gods lacked the depth and insight one might expect from a novel and had its share of issues, I thoroughly enjoyed S.M. Peter’s debut. So much in fact that I was very sad to see the book end, especially in a manner which seems to rule out any sequels. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for standalone novels, but in this case I loved the world and the characters so much that I just want to keep returning back to S.M. Peters’ Whitechapel over and over again.