RogerBW's Blog

Clockwork Heart, Dru Pagliassotti 25 July 2015

2008 steampunk fantasy romance. Taya is an icarus, one of the couriers who strap on wings and buoyant metal to carry messages and small packages across the mountainside city of Ondinium. But a mid-air rescue brings her to the attention of the city's leaders.

I read the first chapter of this in the 2015 Hugo packet, as it was republished in Lightspeed #44. On its own that was a bit by-the-numbers; the book as a whole is rather more interesting.

So this is a steampunk world: the city is full of steam engines and soot, and contains implausibly advanced calculating machines, one of which is built into the core of the mountain itself (where the mines for antigravity metal used to be). They don't use that metal for flying boats or anything combative because they had a bad experience in the Last War, centuries ago, and someone whose arms are controlling a flying-frame can't also be holding a weapon. (The smart reader will instantly think of a number of ways round that.) Like most steampunk worlds, it doesn't make a great deal of sense if you try to work out what might be possible but didn't make it into the story, or the implications of the technology that must be there for the things that are in the story to exist and function.

It's never quite clear just how these flying rigs are put together. There's the "armature", which provides buoyancy; the "keel", which is closed round the body (not like any keel I've ever heard of); the wings and tail, which are probably connected to the armature and/or the keel; and the harness straps, which apparently hold something to something else but mostly seem to exist to be fiddly to get done up or undone in a hurry. I could really have done with a simple description of what's going on in this rig rather than snatches here and there.

The romance is heavily signalled: you'll spot the designated hero the moment he scowls onto the page, and since he is the designated hero, anyone else must be a distraction. What's worse, the framework of a standard romance is used as a driver for a Big Misunderstanding that doesn't serve more than a trivial plot purpose, and makes both of the principals look frankly rather silly. Still, the distraction is ended relatively quickly, and we get into the meat of the plot, with conspiracy, subversion and treason in between the kisses.

And then, about three-quarters of the way through the book, that plot's all over and a whole separate problem has to be set up to finish things off. It's a strange pacing decision, feeling as though the main book came up short on word count and this extra stuff had to be added. It works, I suppose, but rather threw me out of any immersion I had in the story.

On the other hand the characterisation is decently nuanced, the descriptions are suitably gritty, and things do more or less hold together even if we never seem to hear anything about the "cardinals" who are the city's middle class between the aristos and the scum.

After its re-publication in 2013, this is followed by Clockwork Lies, but the story is complete as it stands.

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See also:
Hugo 2015: Lightspeed 44, John Joseph Adams

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