Whitechapel Gods by S.M. Peters
I took a break from reading steampunk fiction for a few months after losing the ability to tell steampunk books apart. I probably could have read this months ago with no danger of mixing it up with other steampunk novels.
The set-up for this one is rather complicated. At some point the area of Whitechapel in London was taken over by two god-like powers: Grandfather Clock and Mama Engine. They took over all life in the area and built the area up into a huge structure that towers far above the original ground level. Most of the residents are part man and part machine and serve the wishes of these gods.
The action mostly follows different members of a band of rebels seeking to overthrow the gods and return Whitechapel to England and Her Majesty. The POV shifts very often between a fairly large cast as the reader sees the same events from different angles. Each POV character has their own motivations, secrets, and backstory that are reveled over the course of the story. Occasionally the switches of POV are jarring, but I never found myself actually confused.
The setting and plot are fairly bleak. The world is harsh one in which life is cheap, when people are allowed to die. The gods have ways of keeping people alive indefinitely which are demonstrated in fairly horrifying ways. There's a lot of death and suffering and pain depicted in this book, so it's not a light romp at all. In fact, that may have been one of the reasons I enjoyed it. The tone is much darker than many recent steampunk novels which seem to focus on being fun adventure/pulp stories. The book this reminded me of more than any other is The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. It has a similar tone and similar sense of horror, though the horror in this book is no where near of the intensity of Power's book. Thankfully, because I'm pretty sure that one scarred me for life.
As for the steampunk elements, they are plentiful. This world isn't so much Victorian, though it's set in the period, because of the extremity of the deviance from actual history. This is a totalitarian state run on advanced steam and clockwork technology. Any Victorian elements are really an afterthought. But the technology is ubiquitous, from a disease that infects people with metal parts to wild and vicious clockwork animals, to huge steam-powered rifles. I think the author did a good job of truly integrating this technology with his world.
Finally there is a lot of...mysticism (?) in this book. There are a lot of sections of hallucinations, dreams, spirit journeys, and well, weirdness. Some of them aren't really ever explained with any coherence, but to me they worked fairly well on an emotional level. It's a world controlled by very powerful Gods that speak directly to people and act directly on the world, after all.
I was surprised looking at Goodreads and Amazon at the mixed reviews this book has received. The chief complaint seems to be that it is either slow and difficult to get through. I really didn't find it to be. When I was reading it, I consistently found it difficult to stop. As stated, I didn't find the shifts in POV to be confusing, as some did. Mostly I think this book feels more like something written decades ago. It's old-style steampunk fiction rather than new-style steampunk fiction. It's more philosophical, complex, a bit antiquated in writing style, and less escapist. I've been known to enjoy both of these groups, so I'm not making judgments. But you should expect something denser, darker, and more challenging than many other steampunk books out there.
I enjoyed it and can say it's one of the best steampunk books I've read in a while. I thought it was well-written and though I'd have liked some more explanations about certain things, I finished it feeling quite satisfied.