My rating: 5 / 5
You'll know I'm a fan of Marcin Wrona if you've read my review of Pale Queen's Courtyard. What he's done for sword and sorcery he's now done for steampunk, and I think this book is actually better.
The Whitechapel Gambit is the story of a boy named Squeak who helps maintain the machinery that keeps an artificial sun blazing over an underground community. An on-the-job injury leads to involvement with mad science, a millionaire with a dark obsession, and a deadly journey to the surface of this strange new world. There's a serial killer, class struggles, bad poetry and chess lessons.
As with Pale Queen's Courtyard, Wrona has crafted something challenging, complex, and deep, while keeping all the fun genre elements that make it delightful to read. I don't know anyone who does a better job of combining thought-provoking ideas and the best parts of literary writing with sheer fun, crowd-pleasing, really cool storytelling.
It's a very ambitious book. I, as an author, would not try a lot of the things Wrona tackles. There's a VERY strange setting. There's language. Some of the cast speaks a blend of 19th-century Cockney slang and invented slang. Others speak the middle-class Victorian English. The rest speak upper-class English. It's no more difficult than juggling chainsaws, after designing one of the chainsaws yourself.
There's some non-linear narrative. There are chess lessons loaded with symbolism. There are technological and magical systems built from scratch. I might attempt any one of these things. This book earns my respect by trying them all. I'd be impressed even if it had blown up in his face. But he actually made it all work.
By the very end the timeline was starting to slip away from me. There were times when I wasn't sure where I was temporally, what level of flashback I was in. There is a cast of servants too big to keep track of them, and when one of them does something shocking, the effect is blunted for me by not being able remember just who that person was. And there was a significant plot element that I don't think got resolved. I'm not sure if it's a setup for a sequel, or if I missed something.
Overall, though, the book is brilliant. There's powerful drama, mystery, and parts that made me laugh. It's a highly original world that I thoroughly enjoyed exploring, and there was no shortage of thought-provoking ideas.