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WesternSFA
Fiendish Schemes
by K.W. Jeter
Tor, $25.99, 352pp
Release Date: October 15, 2013
According to the front cover, this is a standalone sequel to the author’s previous book “Infernal Devices.” As such, I will agree that this story stands alone quite well and one does not need to have read the previous book to enjoy this story.

This story appears to be set in the mid-1800s in London , England . This is the time of the industrial revolution when technology was moving towards coal and steam. However, in this fantastical vision of that time, steam has overtaken coal so much so that man has tapped into the very core of the earth to ‘mine’ steam and transport it over great distances to power the cities. Into this brave new world comes our protagonist, George Dower. George is the son of a late, great inventor of both clockwork devices and, to George’s ultimate dismay, great steam-powered devices, as well. Being the son of such a well-regarded celebrity brings with it the expectation of many that he also inherited the same skills.

George, having fallen on hard times, has come to a disreputable inn at the sea with the intention of ending his life with the last clockwork device of his father’s left to him – a pistol. Before he can do so, he is persuaded by a strange Vicar with the unlikely name of Stonebrake, to assist in finding another of his father’s devices that is some sort of universal communicator. With such a device, Stonebrake intends to bring his religious mission to the whales. While that seems a curious goal, it pales in comparison to the insanity that follows poor George. I would be hard-pressed to even relate in order, those incredible events of which George is a victim. In short, the poor gullible man is lied to at every turn by everyone he meets.

From the cetacean mission, he ends up in London confronted by the horrific evidence of steam-meets-sex: fex. Fex, a term abbreviated from ferric sex; sex, that is, of an iron and steam-powered variety. And if that wasn’t enough to destroy George’s opinion of mankind (and the gentle reader’s), it moves to the houses of power. The upper-crust of London has embarked on a scheme to defraud the public in a complicated effort to win wagers based on the movements of steam-powered lighthouses that move about in an effort to stay ahead of massive ocean movements caused by the now-sentient oceans themselves. (Wow, that was a lot in one sentence, don’t you think?) But it doesn’t stop there; apparently, Steam has also allowed another to gain power at the highest levels of government. And I will leave you to be amused at the author’s characterization of the person most corrupted by power and steam. Pun intended.

Into all this horrific insanity, George is finally visited by two characters from the previous novel. But not to fear, the author does a great job of bringing them into focus without the need for the previous story. Their goals are, to poor George’s dismay, even more incomprehensible. George, up to this point having been portrayed as rather spineless and self-serving, manages to find one clean, worthy goal to which to aspire. The climax is rather overwhelming although not sufficiently described to my taste.

The prose of this story is very formal and convoluted, rather as we imagine upper-crust English people to have spoken in this era. It may challenge the reader unused to such overly descriptive tone and dialogue. But once you get used to it, it can lend a high degree of amusement to the reader. It also means that most of the book is dialogue with a meager plot. Not that the plot isn’t good, it is. It’s mostly about poor George being tossed about as if on the ocean without any support while everyone around him plots and schemes, needing George to bring their plans to fruition. And it isn’t even George who saves the day, although he tries.

Within that context, this was a great steampunk story with a fascinating ending. The character of George was fun and the supporting characters were sufficiently defined. The plot careened through both London and this story but it ultimately satisfied. Don’t miss this one if you enjoy steampunk. ~~ Catherine Book

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