By T. Kingfisher
Howdy Readers! We're back! I hope everyone had a nice holiday! My editor and I have rested, read and dueled all challengers upon the dry desert sand of Arizona. As demanded of us to keep this review series going yet another year but enough of the trivial details, let us review!
T. Kingfisher is actually the pen name of Ursula Vernon, who was born in may 1977 and grew up in Oregon and Arizona (it is a bit of an irony how many writers I like who also lived in this sun-blasted state [Editors Note: The Deep Desert does that to people. Long live the fighters of Mua’Dib]). She graduated from Maeclaster college in St. Paul Minnesota, where she studied anthropology and art. She’s well known author and illustrator of children’s book, the first of which she published in 2008. Before this she was a freelance artist and illustrator and was also known did webcomics. It was one of those webcomics, Digger, where I first ran into her stories. I won’t go to much into Digger because that's not our review for today (someday soon however, I promise you readers) but I will note that Digger won a fistful of awards from all corners and earned every one of them. But what we’re here to talk about today is a prose novel she wrote, Clockwork Boys, which was published just last year in 2017. In fact I got as a Christmas gift, so let's take a look.
The Clockwork Boys is a fantasy novel primarily told from the perspective of Slate, a woman in her 30s, who is a “Creative Accounts and Records Specialist for Hire”. In other words she’s a forger who gets paid to create false financial records and then break in to replace the real records with her forgeries. It's a very interesting line of work and as you might imagine Slate has a background to go with it. She’s the only daughter of a high-status courtesan and she realized early in life that she simply wasn't pretty enough to go into her mother's line of work. I'll be honest, I can't really imagine wanting to be a sex worker, but being a fourteen year old girl staring into the mirror and realizing you're not pretty enough to be one can’t be fun either. If that weren’t enough, her life at the time the book is set is pretty ugly. First the country she lives in is under attack, besieged by a nation who commands massive Things (called Clockwork Boys) that are nearly immune to the metal weapons of normal soldiers. Second, this state of war led to a forging job of hers coming to light. This is a problem because, while she did it before the war, it’s still technically treason and has a sentence of death attached to it and the war has left everyone fresh out of mercy. Third, she only found out about this after she was arrested. She has one option to avoid the hangman’s noose, which is to lead a group of no-hopers through enemy lines, into the homeland of their enemies and steal the information on how the Clockwork boys are created, which will hopefully provide a way to destroy them. The good news is that success means a full pardon! The bad news is that two other groups have already tried this and been butchered to the last man. Also, the government is slapping everyone with a magical tattoo that will eat them if they try to escape. And you thought you regretted your college tattoo. I should mention by the way that Slate is magically sensitive due to a magic-working grandmother. Whenever she’s in the presence of something significant or magically dangerous she smells or tastes peppermint, depending on the strength of the magic involved. And because she’s not allowed to have nice things, she’s mildly allergic to peppermint so this leads to her having violent sneezing attacks and her sinuses go haywire. Honestly, I'm wondering if our good author Ms. Vernon just didn't like Slate or something.
As further evidence of this I would like to take a look at the team of experts that has been assembled to aid Slate. First we have Learned Edmund, who is the youngest man in this team at a whole 19 years old. Despite his tender years, he is a genius scholar from a male only cloistered order. As such he is terrified of Slate, due to her being a woman. Edmund does a bit of growing in this story but doesn't really get that much screen time because he's avoiding our main viewpoint character. I get the sense that we might see more of him in the follow up books but right now he's very much a minor character. Our second man on the team is Brenner, a talented assassin with a snarky sense of humor and a darkly cynical out lookout on life. To be fair, one doesn't really expect a professional assassin to have a naive and optimistic view on life so it makes perfect sense. While he does add some levity to the story, Brenner is honestly the most generic and flat of the characters in the book as snarky and cynical assassins aren't really all that rare these days. What really makes Brenner stand out is that he's Slate's ex-boyfriend and he doesn't like the ex part of that phrase. I honestly have to admire the fact that while sent out on a suicide mission and operating in a war zone, Brenner is devoting a good amount of his time and effort to attempting to lure Slate back into his bed. It's an uncomplicated and surprisingly pure commitment that you just don't see a lot of these days. That said, Slate is pretty sure she doesn't want to end up back in Brenner's bed and worse for our killer for hire is the fact that he has competition.
That competition is the secondary viewpoint character in the story and 4th man in this team, Lord... I mean, Sir Caliban. Sir Caliban is a fallen paladin of the Dreaming God, which seems to be the main religion in the kingdom. An orphan raised by the church nuns, he fully embraced the ideals and duties of paladinhood. Those duties were to hunt down demon possessed creatures and if they were nonsapient creatures like a demon possessed cow, kill them. If they were sapient like a peasant for example, he was supposed to try and convince them to come back to the temple to be exorcised. He was very good at his job and was a rising star and well known hero across the kingdom for his works. Until a demon found him and then took his body for a blood soaked thrill ride. While in the throes of possession Sir Caliban murdered and dismembered a handful or so of nuns before he was discovered and overcome. The demon lurking in his soul was killed but it's metaphysical body remains in his soul and even a dead demon is not entirely inactive. While judged innocent of the murders, he was judged guilty of something for a demon to find a way into him and tossed into jail. It's in exploring what being a fallen paladin means and Sir Caliban's relationship to the others (primarily Slate) that the book really excels. Sir Caliban's inner turmoil over losing his connection to his faith and his god, along with his attempts to find his faith again are believably done without drowning the book in angst. While Sir Caliban might be in despair over the fact that he is utterly cut off from his old life, I honestly find his refusal to give up his code of behavior to be something to respect. Even if his god won't acknowledge him anymore, he will still try to live up to the expectations and goals he was raised with and believes in and there is something noble in that. Additionally Sir Caliban isn’t just a walking ball of angst, he displays flashes of humor and compassion which makes him feel like a real person. Another strong point in the book is the relationship between Slate and Sir Caliban as they deal with a possible mutual attraction they're not sure they want to act on and the fact they could all be very, very dead, very soon. It's less teenage ‘will they, won't they’ and a more tired adult ‘Do I even want to and is this even worth the trouble right now?’. Which is believable to me.
There are things I consider weak points in this novel however. The Clockwork boys of the title for the most part remain off screen, while we see evidence of their work (the slaughter of a village for example) we don't actually see them at work. We in fact only see them in one scene. This kind of reduces them to a vague menace that we are told a lot about but are only shown hints and clues about their combat power. The action in this book is fleeting and doesn't take up much space, so this is not the book to pick up if you want some high impact violence. The main conflict is internal to Slate and Sir Caliban and the personality conflicts between the party members. It's well done but takes so much space that Brenner and Edmund really aren't left with much in this book. Additionally the book kinda ends right when the plot is picking up steam (which I suppose is what happens when your book is only about 212 pages long) and I do have to cut the grade down for that. Seriously it was like eating a great steak only to realize that someone had made off with half of it when you weren’t looking. That said the book is well written, the internal conflicts are interesting and the dialogue is fun to read. As it stands though, Clockwork Boys by T Kingfisher gets a B-, I'm definitely on board for the sequel.
Join us next week Readers, as we return to the world of Robert Howard's creation with Gail Simone's Red Sonja. Keep Reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.