Friday, August 4, 2017

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper By David Bennett

Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper
By David Bennett

At this time Mask of the Ripper (released in October 2015) remains the last published work in the Gideon Smith series. I reviewed Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, the prior book in the series, waaayyy back in February (there will be a link at the bottom) so let me recap. The world of Gideon Smith is a steampunk wonderland where the American Revolution failed and the British Empire kept its hold on most of the east coast of North America. It's a world of Airships, islands full of Dinosaurs, Vampires, Clockwork Cyborgs and even weirder stuff. Into this world strides the Gideon Smith of our title; a handsome, strong son of a fishermen with straightforward courage and morality out to help as many people as possible. Because of this and his deeds in prior books, he's been awarded the title of Hero of the Empire but Smith doesn't work alone. There's his shockingly loyal if rotund chronicler Aloysius Bent, his mechanical lady love Maria, and Rowena Belle of the Airways among his surviving companions. The last two books have been journeys for Gideon Smith learning what being a Hero requires of him and what that means for his life. This book isn't about Gideon though, this book is about Maria, Bent, and Rowena. Although Mr. Bennett spares some time in the book to screw with Gideon's head of course.

I don't think I've spent a lot of time talking about Maria in these reviews. Part of that was because her story was heavily bound up in spoilers. Maria is a mechanical woman, built out of pipes, clockwork, and wrapped in the finest kid leather as skin. Her mind is a human one, it belonged to a woman murdered by agents of the British Crown for the crime of being in a relationship with a prince of the Empire. The whole crazy mess is given life and powered by a strange artifact found in the Atlantic on a sunken Viking longboat, it's origins are lost in pre-Egyptian times. Maria has been through a lot of changes in the last two books as exposure to other artifacts of the same origin have made her more... Alive. She no longer needs to be wound up and grows increasingly less dependent on the machinery that makes up her body. Maria has made her peace with her origins but she now has to make peace with who and what she deciding who and what she is. For one thing, Maria has to decide just how much she is going to let herself be bound by the conventions and mores of a society that in large part will never accept her as a person. I mean we are talking about British society 100 years ago here. This is the society that was struggling with the idea that women might be people in the same sense as men are. I suppose I shouldn't sneer to much at that, as there are plenty of people today, in the 21st century, who seem to have trouble accepting this idea. This is made more difficult when she finds out that her missing creator modeled her looks on a flesh and blood girl. A girl who disappeared upon being hypnotized into believing she's a whore. Maria is gonna have to deal with all this as well as work out what her relationship is with Gideon and what her ties are to the monster haunting the streets of London.

Because while she, Gideon, and the crew were running about the world? Jack the Ripper was hunting through the streets of Whitechapel killing women and cutting open their heads as if he was looking for something inside those heads. That of course begs the question of why the Ripper would be looking for anything inside of the head of a girl from Whitechapel and who, if anyone, he could be working for (or with) while conducting this grisly search? The Ripper showed up in the first book, Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, as the story that Mr. Bent had been chasing and now that all the business is out of the way Aloysius Bent is determined to hunt down the Ripper once and for all and put an end to the murder spree. Especially now that the street-walking girls of Whitechapel have declared a general strike until Jack the Ripper is found and arrested. To do this Bent will have to join forces with the police, specifically Inspector G. Lestrade. It's here that I run into something I really do dislike about the book. Inspector Lestrade is a Sherlock Holmes character, as a good number of my readers may already know. As you may guess Dr. Watson and Sherlock himself make an appearance in the novel; with Sherlock being a mental patient and Dr. Watson being the doctor tasked with his care. Dr. Watson lets him attempt to solve crimes as a method of treating his insanity. I'm gonna be blunt, that's pretty disrespectful and was unnecessary for the story. It really feels like something Mr. Bennett just threw in to darken the tone of the world. Considering that the book is dealing with hunting a serial killer that the authorities outside of the local cops barely care about? I think the tone is already pretty dark. I mean, in the last book Mr. Bennett took us to a Texas being run by an insane cyborg slaver warlord. I like the idea of adding shades of gray to the standard pulp setup and confronting pulp style heroes with morally complex situations but for there to be shades of gray, you need to mix in some light with your darkness, lest you end up with just a morass of muddy darkness. Nor is Sherlock the only character dragged through the mud as an aging Zo... El Chupacabra returns and is used poorly. That said I do like the work done with the good inspector Lestrade as this version of the character has considerable depth to him and his own unconventional relationship which gives him a point of commonality with the main cast. Still if the ghosts of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Johnston McCulley show up demanding satisfaction for this insult... I'm gonna have to say Mr. Bennett brought it on himself.

Unfortunately Bent is unable to focus his full abilities on catching the Ripper when Rowena is arrested and put on trial for murder. It's here we get to see the full extent of Bent's loyalty and willingness to put himself out for his friends. He throws himself into proving her innocent, by getting her a lawyer and working to find any evidence or any witness to keep the jury from uttering the words Not Guilty. Which is going to be difficult as the evidence against him is high and the Judge is known for his love of the death sentence. This is all the more difficult in that he has to do it alone, Maria is distracted with grappling with her identity and her place in the world and Gideon Smith? Gideon Smith has gone missing and disappeared into the depths of London without a trace. This leaves Bent fighting with every ounce of cunning, low charm and dogged determine he can wring out of himself. We also get a small look into Bent's past and find it choked by regrets. Mr. Bent comes off as oddly self aware and at times vulnerable in this book with his characteristic braggadocio gone. Considering that I've not talked a lot about Bent in these reviews because there wasn't much to say, Mr. Bennett has done well to humanize this character and lets us see that he doesn't hang around Gideon Smith for material gain. Although he has gained a much more comfortable life, it's not about that for him. He's here because at the latter half of his life, after trying so hard and screwing up so often, he finally has a chance to do something good and right and he's gonna throw everything he has into that. I like that and it's strange to have Aloysius Bent, the crude, near-hedonist cynic emerge as the moral compass of the book; but here it works.

The Ripper isn't the only villain of the piece however, there is also Markus Mesmer. Mesmer has a talent for hypnosis and has been causing minor havoc in London while hiding behind an act as a theater entertainer all while leading his own gang. Of course the gang isn't the only protection Mesmer has, he also has a battery of lawyers and isn't afraid to use them. Mesmer mostly plays a minor role in the story but our heroes do have to figure out what he's up to. Why is he in London, who is he working for, what if any is his connection to Jack the Ripper? Why is he so interested in the missing girl who looked just like Maria? For that matter, why is there is a girl who could pass for Maria's twin? All these questions pull the group apart as without Gideon Smith there, they find themselves operating mostly alone and unafraid. That said our title hero isn't neglected in this story, just kinda shuffled into the back seat for a bit as he disappears into London robbed of even his memory of who he is. Without even memory of his name or any money in his pockets, Gideon is wandering London in the middle of winter. He has to figure out just how far he'll go to keep alive and he finds himself pulled into a plot against the Empire. He has to figure out just what he stands for and who he's fighting for.

The action remains fast paced and well written and the dialogue is snappy and fun to read but to be honest I found myself more frustrated with this book then the last two in the series. The story raises a lot of questions and doubts for our characters but fails to provide answers to many of them and leaves our characters shaken and not entirely at peace with what they accomplished. There's good character work done with Maria and Bent but the story accompanies that by tearing down Gideon and Rowena which leaves us without any real catharsis. Which means Mr. Bennett has managed to tell a complete story but leaving us with the feeling of an incomplete story, which I'm almost sure he meant to do. It's an impressive feat of writing if that's so but I can't say I'm favor of it. Still this isn't a terrible book and it's interesting. Gideon Smith and the Mask of the Ripper by David Bennett gets a C from me for that (Editor Query: Higher without the character assassination?{Yeah, it would be}). I find that I enjoyed the last two books in the series a lot more.

Join us next week as we continue Log Horizon, keep reading.

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