George Dower’s father was a watchmaker, but he didn’t just make watches. Some of his special customers knew he was a genius with all sorts of gear work. When his father died, George inherited the watch shop. Unfortunately, he didn’t inherit his father’s genius. He can sometimes manage to fix a customer’s watch if he sees that a part has worn out, or something else obvious is wrong, but that’s about it. He’s completely flummoxed when a strange brown man brings in something he’s never seen before — something George’s father made. George has no idea what this infernal device does, but when he agrees to help, he’s soon embroiled in a wild adventure that involves a secret London district with fishy-looking citizens, the Royal Anti-Society, the formidable woman who heads up the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice, a robot doppelganger, and a man and woman who speak 20th century American slang. George is starting to realize that his father may have been involved in some rather shady business.
K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy, first published in 1987, has been reprinted by Angry Robot because of the recent resurgence of Victorian literature. In fact, K.W. Jeter was the man who actually coined the term “Steampunk.” As he explains in the forward, he meant it as a joke (referring to the term “cyberpunk”) but it stuck.
As promised, Infernal Devices is indeed a mad steampunk fantasy; it’s filled with flying machines and other mechanical devices, Victorian moral and scientific societies, 19th century fashion and music, anachronistic technologies, and even some Lovecraftian monsters. The prose, dialogue and humor also feel appropriately Victorian, and Jeter’s London atmosphere, with its clean shop fronts and grimy back alleys, feels authentic.
Though there’s a lot going on in Infernal Devices, it’s light. There are no deep themes, moving relationships, profound insights, or brilliant images, but there are plenty of surprises and laughs. The protagonist, mild-mannered and bumbling George Dower, is not particularly interesting or dynamic, but I felt sympathetic towards him anyway. The other characters are amusing, but they’re rather two-dimensional. This novel is a good example of “Mad Victorian” — it’s just fast chaotic fun. And it’s a classic of the steampunk genre, so I consider it a must-read for serious SFF fans just for that reason.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of Infernal Devices, which was read by Michael Page, who’s got the perfect English accent for this novel — he sounds slightly fanatical and frenzied. I loved his narration. The audiobook also includes a foreword by K.W. Jeter and an afterward by Jeff VanderMeer who explains the importance of the novel in the history of the steampunk genre.