Steampunk Desperado

Where the Nineteenth Century meets the Twenty-First.

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The Clockwork Dagger (2014) by Beth Cato

As I’ve said before, I love a good title but I don’t know what to make of this one. “Clockwork Dagger” is a phrase akin to “Naked Gun” which is perfect for a work of satire. This book, however, isn’t satire. It takes place in the fictional monarchy of Caskentia where “Clockwork Dagger” is a title given to the Queen’s elite covert operatives. The characters do acknowledge at one point that the term is silly – how could clockwork fit with a dagger? I’ll admit, however, that the phrase has a certain ring to it.

Furthermore, the book’s main protagonist is not herself a Clockwork Dagger. Octavia Leander is a gifted magical healer (“medician” – I love that kind of portmanteau) who leaves her school under a cloud of bad feelings. Nonetheless, she has a job waiting for her as medician for a remote village she’s never visited. While traveling there by airship, she meets two interesting individuals. One is Viola, a matronly novelist who becomes her bunkmate and companion. The other is Alonzo, the ship’s imposing young steward, who turns out to be the titular Clockwork Dagger. This isn’t a spoiler; he appears on the book’s cover (the guy wearing the kilt) so we can guess that’s probably him.

Clockwork Dagger has the structure of a romance novel. The young, headstrong heroine meets a dashing fellow whom she dislikes at first. Of course, there’s an undercurrent of mutual attraction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it makes the story a bit predictable. Thankfully the book had a political undercurrent which helped keep my interest. Caskentia is plagued by war and disease, and a usurper sits on the throne. There are of course many plots and conspiracies underway.

I enjoyed Cato’s well-described fictional world, with its people, customs, and feuds with its neighbors. Healers such as Octavia practice a nature religion which reveres a goddess called the Lady. There’s also some interesting anachronistic technology. Caskentia’s neighbor to the south has performed genetic experiments which produced gremlins, hideous but harmless creatures resembling giant green bats. The kind-hearted Octavia rescues a young one which she christens “Leaf.” She releases him to the wild, but the reader knows he’ll certainly show up again.

That brings up my major problem with the book: it was a bit predictable. The political elements aren’t that novel, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it. The romantic element seems to be targeted at a female audience, but there’s a fair bit of action as well. It is the first in a series. I have not yet read the second, The Clockwork Crown (there’s another interesting title.) It’s gratifying to see that major publishers like HarperCollins are still releasing steampunk titles after the lull of the last few years.

I do recommend this book to steampunk fans, but it’s probably not the best introduction to the genre unless you’re also a fan of romance. I give The Clockwork Dagger a score of 3.5 out of 5 gears.

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