I was going to write a detailed review of K.W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices, only to find that someone else had beaten me to it: The Little Red Reviewer’s review of same..but I’ll go ahead and take a stab anyway, because I think this book deserves more attention. Just make sure you get the original edition, not the 2011 edition as it’s (according to other reviewers) riddled with typos.
For the link phobic: George Dower has inherited his father’s watch shop but not his father’s talent for clockwork, and as a result he is gradually being forced out of business, which process is hastened immeasurably by the events in Infernal Devices. As the story begins, a mysterious customer, whom Dower calls “the Brown Leather Man”, requests repairs on an equally mysterious device of unknown purpose. Against his better judgment, Dower accepts the commission, though he does warn the Brown Leather Man that his chances of fixing the device are less than minimal. Later that day, one Graeme Scape arrives at the shop; he is dressed like a wealthy Brummel in questionable taste but with the manner of an impresario trickster and speaking in the slang, though Dower cannot know this, of the late 20th century. Scape and his companion, Miss McThane, are interested in the senior Dower’s automata, and will go to any lengths to get them.
The story swings through a dizzyingly swift series of subplots and characters, including a moribund race of selkies and their degenerate half-human cousins from Dampford and Wetwick, the activation of the ‘Paganinicon’, an automaton so sophisticated it can pass for human and which is rather intimately linked to our protagonist, a cult surrounding a fictitious piscine saint, the Ladies Union for Suppression of Carnal Vice, a lord who believes that the earth can/must be shaken asunder by a clockwork (and has thus created a spaceship with which to escape to the aetherial regions)…and so on. In the end, Dower must go into hiding in order to escape the ill repute into which the Paganinicon’s last actions and the rumors surrounding Scape’s and McThane’s attempts to activate his father’s automata have brought upon him; the book is purportedly written by Dower himself thinking back on the misadventures which brought him to this semiretired hiding.
Infernal Devices is (I think) one of the, er, seminal books in the steampunk genre, a modern science fiction subgenre usually set in Victorian times, and indeed often written in the late Victorian style of authors such as H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and others of their period, although the novels often include technological devices not known in the Victorian era. As such, Infernal Devices is typical; I’d suggest this book and this genre to everyone who’s grown weary of such novels as The Castle of Otranto…here’s a starter reading list.