Thursday, August 13, 2015
Review: The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato
One way I survive all that shit life throws at me is through compartmentalizing. I create (artificial) boundaries, I develop boxes for thinking within and without, I live in context, I have many limits. In many ways it’s a fundamental part of human nature, though some people do it more than others. However, we all have our own system.
Likewise, books beg to be shelved, and the system for shelving can be deeply personal. Sure there’s that Dewey Decimal system that anyone under the age of 35 can’t possibly fathom, and every time I visit a library I realize just how much I’ve forgotten about it, but I digress. How do books get shelved, categorized, or boxed? Do you first sort by read versus not read (I often do)? Then do you alphabetize? By author’s name, by book title? Do divide into genre? What about subgenre?
I’ve rambled through the beginning of this review because context is so important. The context I come from, the way I categorize books, and how I approach it. And more directly, all of these variables can allow one to see a book at many more levels than may be first evident.
The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato is one such book. It’s set in a secondary world – so it must be fantasy? It has clockwork in its title and largely occurs on a dirigible, so it must be steampunk? But there’s magic, so back to fantasy? But there all these machines and clockwork technology – plus Victorian-like monarchy, so it has to be steampunk? But, there’s clearly a romantic story-arc, so it can only be paranormal romance? Oh please, can’t you tell it’s really a post-modern, weird western?
All of the above characteristics of The Clockwork Dagger are very real and inform what it is, but let’s approach it as a steampunk book, since that’s the way it’s dressed and it would seem that’s what it wants the world to think it is. In this respect, it has everything that a good steampunk book should offer – Victorian-esque world, mystery, secret agents, clockwork/steam technology, guns, and dirigibles.
But, look at what I’ve written above…does it matter? I’ve written about what box the book goes in, what shelf it belongs to. I’ve written about the setting, the world built to frame the book. I haven’t really touched on what this book is and what it has to say.
To get to what the book is and what it says, one must start with the heart of the book – Octavia Leander. Octavia is a young woman starting out on her first independent, professional venture in the world. She is a healer, a magical healer, one of great talent and who must be careful in what she shows the world around her. Her world is war-torn and she bears scars of that war herself. She is the maiden with a heart-of-gold who is out of her depth in the great big world. Predictably she meets a man who becomes a love interest, there is threat to her wellbeing, she is betrayed by someone close to her, and it all has big implications. But, just because those things are predictable, doesn’t mean they are bad. Because it comes back to Octavia who is a wonderfully compelling character with a perspective on things that is downright amusing even when deadly serious.
The Clockwork Dagger is also a (almost) traditional murder-mystery set in an enclosed space. Most of the book takes place on a dirigible where strange attacks keep occurring. Why? Who? It all gets mixed up with agents from the eastern wastes, agents from the crown, a long-missing princess, and of course, Octavia herself, who is slowly realizing that she’s not just an average magical healer, but something more.
And wrapped up in all of this are some really excellent ‘goodies’ that round out a great story and loveable protagonist with some meaty depth. In a secondary, Victorian-world, it’s hard to leave out those troubling bits of colonial, post-colonial, racial and ethnic tensions, and Cato certainly does not. Additionally, there’s a juicy bit of science vs. magic vs. religion wrapped up in the story. Rounding this out is another little bit that I always love to see in SFF books – realization that the status quo is not a good thing. There are implications of social justice, poisonous leadership and a real need for progressive change.
Now, I’ve rambled on for quite a bit, wrapping this review up in the context of boxes and shelves, then knocking those aside, rambling more, and I still haven’t flat-out offered up my opinion on all this, which is what I strongly believe is the most important part of a review. Did I like this book?
This book is a fun mystery and adventure through a creative, well-rounded (western) steampunk world. But it’s Octavia and her merry band of friends and conspirators that make it the fun book that it is. Of course, I want more, and more there is. The Clockwork Crown rounds out the duology and is available now, along with a (prequel) novella, The Deepest Poison.