Gail Carriger Coop de Book Review ~ Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti (Miss Carriger Recommends)

This month we read Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti. I hope you enjoyed it, Gentle Reader. I’ve been trying to choose books for the group that range in type, but touch on my own work in some way. This was our first steampunk venture. Because I was away most of this month, I couldn’t participate in the discussion as much as I would like, for which I apologize. I should be more present for the next two books.

Via Dru’s website

I liked Clockwork Heart very much. This book is an example of my favorite type of steampunk to read ~ not so much alternate history as entirely alternate world. Because I do so much research into the Victorian Era myself, and because I’m obsessed with certain aspects (fashion, food, medical science) I’m prone to getting annoyed if an alt-history author makes mistakes that touch on my expertise. (I realize I make mistakes myself, and readers forgive me, I’m just not that good of a person when the situation is reversed. What can I say? We all house within us some latent hypocrisy.) With alternate world steampunk I don’t have to worry about this and I find myself more forgiving as a reader and thus better absorbed into the story.

Steampunk also, for me, often has a technobabble issue. By technobabble I mean when the author gets obsessed with their steampunk technology, and constantly describes inventions in the way that some epic fantasy novelists describe magical systems. Some readers love this kind of comprehensive immersion, I am not one of those readers. So Dru’s breezy handling of her psyudo-science is something I appreciated. I’m not worried about actually trying to understand ondium, and I’m happy to accept it as written and watch Taya fly.

“Gates pierced the walls at regular intervals, but each portal was guarded by stern-faced lictors whose job was to prevent the indiscriminate mixing of castes. Only icarii like Taya…”

Which brings me to the caste system. I always like reading books that have a strong class order in play. (Although I don’t like it in a post-apocalyptic or future dystopian setting, I find it stretches my belief too much as the actual future, yet not at all when it’s a fantasy setting. Another example of my hypocrisy?)

“But you don’t want to be outcaste, do you?”
Face twisting in rage, Cristof turned and slammed a hand down on the table. “My brother and my caste are none of your business, Icarus!”
Taya flinched, then slid off the chair and dropped to one knee, pressing her palm against her forehead. “I’m sorry, Exalted,” she said, furious at herself. How could she have forgotten her manners around an exalted, even an exalted in exile? Some future diplomat!
“Stand up.” Cristof’s voice was tight.
She glanced at him. His face was pale with anger. She bowed again, feeling sick. “I’m sorry, Exalted,” she repeated.
“Dammit, Icarus, stand up!”

I liked the set up in Dru’s world of rigid castes, masks, and lack of social mobility. I don’t need it explained to me and I appreciate her language nods to Latin for the exulted caste (“I am Viera Octavus, Taya Icarus, and I am in your debt.”) and to other languages for the surrounding cultures (“I am Lieutenant Janos Amcathra.” … A Demican name.) although some of the other names then confused me  ~ Why Cristof? Suddenly we’re Germanic? Is that a foreshadow? A hint as to heritage?

“The Lady granted you an exalted rebirth for a reason, and it would be a sin to treat it lightly.”

But what about the book?

At first I was confused by the romance thread and then by the ostensible mystery. I kept trying to make this book a classic romance (which it patently isn’t, as the romance doesn’t drive the plot). Then, once I figured out it wasn’t a romance, I thought it had a noir detective foundation. But that wasn’t right either, because Taya’s investigation was too predictable and she’s the wrong protag for that kind of story. About half way through, I decided I was doing Dru a disservice by trying to box the narrative into anything but steampunk, and then I just enjoyed it.

“My dress isn’t exactly fastened,” Taya admitted. “It was sewn on.”
Cristof choked in mid-swallow and set his glass down.

What didn’t work for me:

Side characters. 
For some reason I never got a feel for any of them, and they never really resonated with me. Perhaps they didn’t have enough screen time? Perhaps they started out as more and got combined in a rewrite so that they were muddled? I’m not quite sure.

The death toll. 
I found it really hard to accept that after so many deaths Cristof would be as stable as he was without also being a psychopath. When one of the key deaths turned out to be faked, I wasn’t surprised, and I stopped believing in some of the other deaths as well at that point which made them less impactful.

What I liked:

The world building and use of the messenger archetype. 
I’m a huge fan of the concept of the Icarii, sliding between caste because they can literally fly between the highs and the lows of society. However, it doesn’t really feel like an ode to Icarus. (Or is it? Is Taya overly proud and flying too high? Will the series expose more of this character flaw?) Instead, Clockwork Heart feels like an ode to Hermes. Oh boy do I love a nod to the messenger archetype. Like Iris, or Charon, or Anubis, Taya represents a figure who transitions between high and low, life and death, past and future. Messengers (like Shakespeare’s fools) are often those with the most freedom to understand the function of a social system because they are both members of it and outside observers. Taya can be an entirely liminal/fringe character by virtue of her job. She exists on the threshold of the very society she inhabits and supports, and brings a unique point of view to that society as a result.

“Icarii stand outside the traditional caste hierarchy. The next time an exalted shouts at you, stay on your feet and answer him like an equal.”

(Oh yeah, I just put my academic hat on. It’s big and ostentatious and decorated in eagle feathers. I’ll take it off now.)

The spark between Cristof and Taya. 
I thought they had great chemistry and I do love me a grumpy man.

“It’s beautiful. This shade of grey matches your eyes.”
Across the table, Cristof made a strangled noise and sat back down. 

It wasn’t too surprising that Taya found herself with a partner who also exists in transition space. In a way the only partner Taya could end up with had to be fringe like her: a fallen godling, he who has left mount Olympus, Demeter style, to wander among the common folk. (Boy, I’m really reaching for those Greek myths in this particular review, sorry about that. Blame an overabundance of classics classes in university.)

“Some critical part of her pointed out that it was ridiculous to kneel in the dirt kissing an ungracious, ill-tempered outcaste, but the uncertain, eager way his fingers touched her cheeks and the back of her neck made her heart ache.”

I think it’s a brilliant idea to transition these two characters into diplomacy. Taya has already been trained in many of the skills she needs including empathy and objectivity. And what else are she and Cristof good for? Already liminal within their own culture and too perceptive of its flaws, they best serve it by becoming interpreters between their world and others. They are the only ones even capable of understanding a non-caste system. I look forward to seeing what happens to them in future books.

{Next up is Children of the Night by Mercedes Lackey. I know this is the second in her Diana Tragarde Investigation series but it is, I think, much better than the first. It stands well alone.}


Your Moment of Parasol . . .

Haruo Nakajima and Momoko Kôchi on the set of Godzilla (Gojira), 1954 (via This Is Not Porn)

Your Infusion of Cute . . .


Your Tisane of Smart . . .
Getting into Public School, or Scary Entrance Examinations from the 1880s

Your Writerly Tinctures . . .  
“The title of “Professor” does not really belong to all men who teach any thing, or to every man that exhibits a show—or to mesmerists, and spiritual knockers. Do not give it to them.”
~ The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners or, Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book
by Eliza Leslie (1864)

Book News:

via @meghancnyc on Twitter, @strandbookstore Staff Pick!

Quote of the Day:
“The day you act charming, I’ll know something is wrong.”
~ Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti

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Posted by Gail Carriger

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  1. BethAnn Hannah said:

    Me too! That Alister was just so darn charming. And despite the fact that he ended up being a psychopath, I still wanted to believe that he really did have feelings for Taya.

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