Review: K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices
Posted May 8, 2011on:
Infernal Devices, by K.W. Jeter
copyright 1987, republished in 2011 with a new introduction and afterword
where I got it: purchased new
why I read it: it’s the April book club book for my local SF reading club. and who doesn’t like Steampunk?
Interested in Steampunk but not sure where to start? Looking for some adventure? I’ll save you the trouble of reading this entire review by simply saying that K. W Jeter’s Infernal Devices is one of the best executed novels I’ve read in a long time, and I easily expect it to be one of my top reads for the year. I guarantee you will enjoy it.
In a handful of recently published “steampunks” that I’ve read, the steampunk elements are simply window dressing. The story is an adventure, a mystery, and in more cases than not a thinly veiled romance, with a handful of gears, airships, and steam engines thrown in so it can be called steampunk. I’m an elitist snob: pulling shit like that is a major turn off. So, as an elitist snob, it thrills me to say that Infernal Devices is the genuine article. No window dressing, no airships just for the sake of airships, no thinly veiled anything. Infernal Devices drips with authenticity, invokes a proper Victorian gentleman’s strong dislike of the unknown, reeks of dank dark drinking dens, and invites you to get lost in a watchmaker’s workshop brimming with beautifully constructed clockwork devices.
George Dower never knew his father well. Raised outside the city by an Aunt, he knows his father, the famous inventor, through reputation only. After a churchly disaster, George keeps his head down and merely attempts to keep his father’s workshop in business. This proves difficult, as although George can fix a basic watch that needs nothing more than winding, the workshop collects more dust than commissions.
When a strange looking man delivers a complex clockwork device that needs fixing, and offers payment in advance with a strange gold coin, George takes the man’s money before realizing this commission is far beyond his understanding, and that the dark skinned man never gave his name.
Guilty of the worst sin of all, the never mentioned 8th deadly sin, boredom, George decides to investigate this strange coin, to learn more about the man it came from. After all, a business man must protect the interests of his customers, and perhaps through the investigation he can learn more about the device and how to fix it. Thus begins an adventure of deadly chases, beautiful women, strange humanoid automatons, his father’s secret history, mad scientists, secret villages and strange religions, drink and depravity. Dark humor abounds alongside danger, and I caught myself laughing out loud on more than one occasion, often from George’s unmitigated innocence about life.
Told in the first person, I will admit that at first I was a little intimidated by George’s vocabulary and internal monologue. But like a piece of romantic music that at first sounds overblown and complex, I quickly gained a comfort level with his formal method of speaking. A sentence structure that at first felt stilted and drawn out, within a few pages I was coming to find it elegant, beautiful, and perfectly descriptive of the world Jeter thrusts his reader into. And again, no window dressing here. More naive than stuffy, and although his cuffs may be patched and repatched, George prefers the world to see him as a gentleman, not a barely surviving shop owner.
Like many of my fellow reviewers, I try to take notes while reading. Who characters are, factions, etc. Infernal Devices made note taking a bit difficult because you see, I could not put this book down. I did not want to stop reading it, not even to write down a characters name. I needed to find out what happened, needed to know who wanted George dead next, needed to know who the Leather Skinned man was, what was up with the man who wore dark sunglasses and why he talks so funny. When you absolutely need to know, right now? If that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is.
Out of print for years, Infernal Devices (along with his 1979 Morlock Night) is now back in print, thanks to Angry Robot Books. Not only is Jeter’s Infernal Devices possibly one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it offers some much needed perspective on the steampunk craze. I wonder if Jeter is laughing his ass off right now, that this little book that went mostly ignored years ago, is now considered the keystone of a multimedia trend.