Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: "Clockwork Heart" by Dru Pagliassotti

That's "clockwork," not "cleckwerk."
Good job, typographers.
High above the streets and smoke plumes of Ondinium, Taya soars on silver wings. In a city driven by the beat of the great engine at its heart, only the icarii couriers move freely among the castes. Taya has been training for years in caste-appropriate protocols, hoping to earn her place in the elite diplomatic corps.

On the eve of her sister's wedding, Taya is in the right place at the right time to save one of the city's Exalted from a sabotaged cable car. She learns it was the wrong time, when the rescue entangles her in a web of intrigue and terrorism.

Across the bounds of caste, the Exalted Alister--a genius programmer--reaches out to Taya for help. But while Alister tries to protect Taya from a string of murders and bombings, his misanthropic brother, an outcast from Exalted society, looks more and more like the culprit. Someone is trying to destroy the computational machines that keep Ondinium alive, and they could use a good pair of wings--even if it means stealing them from a dead icarus.

  4.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
Spoiler alert: I want to kiss this book all over its beautiful face.

I really cannot praise Clockwork Heart enough as a page-turning adventure. Nor can I praise the author, Dru Pagliassotti, enough for writing a romantically-intense book that I actually enjoyed (by which I mean over the course of the story I cackled, shrieked out loud, kicked my feet in glee, and at one point lay on the floor overwrought by emotions.) If you couldn't tell by talking to me, I am kind of a cold-hearted grumpasaurus when it comes to love stories. I get a little bored (and irritated) when a novel puts its plot on hold so that its characters can mash their faces together. Clockwork Heart avoids this by--imagine this!--keeping the romantic development concurrent with the plot.

The description on the back of the book sets up readers' expectations for some sordid love triangle. I'm happy to inform you that this is not the case! From Taya's first meeting with the Forlore brothers, my money was on the grouchy and physically unimpressive Cristof rather than on charming Alister. What can I say? I read Charlotte Brontë's Villette; I have certain narrative recognition skills. Apparently I have a Thing for people who are grumpy and speak like encyclopedias.

The banter is delightful and a reason to recommend the book all by itself. I was flagging particularly good sections to quote for this book grump, until I realized that I had tabbed every single conversation.
"I don't know why [the detectives] thought you might be useful to them. What do you do, stab prisoners with the sharp edge of your tongue until they beg for mercy?"
I really like reading about relationships (friendly as well as romantic) where each person is trusted and respected for having their own particular strengths. A system of mutual support is built, rather than one of one-upmanship or limitations. If anyone can fill another's shoes, then no one is irreplaceable. Fittingly enough, that's a critique one character lays against Ondinium's society:
"I feel sometimes there is nobody in Ondinium who cannot be replaced. We are like  the gears in one of Exalted Forlore's clocks. That is a strength, because the clock will keep running even after every gear inside of it has been replaced. But it is a weakness because it is impossible to respect a man when one thinks of him as nothing more than a replaceable part. 'We must have a dedicate here. Go, send a lictor there.' A man's name and spirit become unimportant."

"Maybe that's why terrorists throw bombs," Taya suggested."So people will remember their names."

"Yes, that is why terrorists throw bombs," Amcathra agreed."They have not been taught to respect life. How can a man learn to respect life in a city of clockwork castes?"
I got the sense that the book succeeds as well as it does because its author had thought it over for so long--and had thought over our world, too. At a certain point in the book, the Exalted Alister reveals one of the programs he has been developing for the great engine: a psychological profiling program designed to test the stability and suitability of theoretical marriages, specifically for the purposes of preventing abusive marriages. Alister believes that a society cannot prosper without a population of stable, happy couples. What an oddly specific yet totally admirable goal!

Pagliassotti also clearly spent a lot of thought on how a person would be affected by the death of another. To spoil some things, Taya accidentally kills someone--both of them in the line of their respective duties--and while she isn't "haunted" by it to the point of melodrama and angst, it troubles her for the rest of the book. She will not be easily forgiven by that person's family, as much as she regrets it, and as much as it was clearly an accident. I liked that Pagliassotti refused to make it easy for her protagonist, because she thought through the full ripple of effect that Taya's actions would have. Because of her actions, a person is missing from the world--and even though that person wasn't the protagonist of a book, they were important to the people they knew. (However imaginary.)

Returning to the subject of Alister's programs: a large part of this book's plot revolves around computers as they might have arisen in a steampunk world. What else is the great engine at the heart of Ondinium but a massive supercomputer, one powered by infinite gears and pistons rather than microchips? The "programs" that Alister and his colleagues create are sheets of carefully punched-out metal, which run through the engines' gears like the cylinders of a music box. If any of my readers are familiar with the graphic novels of Evan Dahm (author of Rice Boy, Order of Tales and Vattu), there is a similar machine in his short story "The Thinker."

Pages from Evan Dahm's short story "The Thinker," depicting a mechanical "computer"

I can't wax rhapsodic about the worldbuilding to the same extent as I did with Tamora Pierce's Terrier. The setting of Clockwork Heart isn't as detailed. That said, I don't have any disappointed critique about it either. Pagliassotti sketched out an interesting, atypical, steampunk world with confidence and enough evocative flourishes that I believed in its existence without needing to look at it in greater detail. I did find it neat that she didn't use a book with a caste-driven society as a soapbox to announce the evils of caste systems, as other authors might do. While by and large we would all agree that castes are a problem, Pagliassotti simply builds her world and lets the reader make up his or her own mind about its merits and flaws. (My favorite setting detail were the multiple layered robes worn by the Exalted, which suggests a certain Heian-era aesthetic to the world as seen in the Tale of Genji.)

There are two places where the book stumbles a little. The first happens in the very beginning, when Pagliassotti tries to include too many concepts too quickly. I put my reading-blinders on and focused on what Taya was doing rather than on all the concepts, trusting that it would become clear in time, which it does. A lot of the terminology is pulled from fairly common Latin roots, so it's easy to figure out.

The French cover of Clockwork Heart
has a particularly lovely illustration
The other weak spot is a certain set of side characters: Alister's programming team. Overall, the supporting cast (Taya's fellow icarii, the family of the Exalted she saves in the first chapter, a sly detective, a morose barbarian prisoner) is colorful and memorable without being distracting. Her friend Cassi is a particular treat. I read the programmers as a group--a cute ensemble--without seeing a need to differentiate them. However, there comes a point in the plot when remembering the specific members in the group is important. By that point, though, Pagliassotti has already reached the number of side characters a reader can be expected to remember in a book of this size. (Perhaps this advance warning to remember the programmers will help you track them better than I did.)

A final and unusual hat-tip goes to this book for having a much better title than I gave it credit for. The number of meanings that a "clockwork heart" could have as the story goes on, both literal and metaphorical, is really lovely.

The plot moves quickly without leaving the reader behind. The dialogue is both witty and poignant.  Its characters are engaging, its sense of romance is stunning--I can't think of the last time I read something as perfectly poised as the the incredible intimacy of the flying lesson--and I was turning pages late into the night.

While I'm happy with the conclusion of the book as a standalone novel, in the course of writing this grump I learned about its sequels. I look forward to checking those out as well. Until then, I give Clockwork Heart my full recommendation.

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