Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

I rarely read fantasy, mostly because that genre involves long series with countless characters that never seem to come to an end, and I prefer reading stand-alone books. But in this case, I could not simply stand by and not read this book for two reasons. First, I’m obsessed with the historical brilliance of automata, like David Roentgen’s Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette (link if anyone’s curious to see this one in action), presented to the queen in 1784. Second, the cover looked really cool and steampunk (a genre I love).

This book came out on August 1, 2017. The author has a PH.D in Robotics and, honestly, you can tell in reading this book as he blends both reality of scientific history, legend, and fantasy.

The plot is broken up into two parts in alternating chapters. The first follows June Stefanov, an expert in ancient technology, in the modern age who is given an automaton heart by her grandfather, who in turn picked it up on a WWII battlefield after seeing a man made of metal shot. The second perspective follows Peter (Pyotr in Russian), an automaton created in 18th century Russia under orders from the tsar, and his sister Elena (also an automaton).

Non-Spoiler Review

There are a lot of good things about this book, but in many ways the good things are actually detrimental to later in the plot. The book is rather short, so if you aren’t really into reading epic fantasy or sci-fi, but you want to dabble in the genre, this book is probably a good option for you. However, because it is so short, you don’t feel as if you can really get in-depth into the world. There’s a lot of information thrown at you with little pause to ruminate on it (both for the reader and for the characters).

Characters, especially June, just accept all the magical stuff that is happening to them without batting an eye. In a sense, June seems more of a robot than Peter does, which is not a good sign for character depth.

The author employs minimalistic writing in both the best sense and the worse. On one hand, it can be tiring when authors add so many side-plots that you have to go into the book with a magnifying glass just to try to root out the main plot. However, this book almost goes too far the other way. We learn very little outside of the main plot, which at many times made me feel detached about what’s happening. You don’t really connect with the characters or feel empathy when one is hurt.

I don’t want to bash too hard on some aspects of this book, because over-all I really enjoyed it. The action progresses very well and you never feel like you’re stuck in one place too long. The chapters are all quite short, which makes the pacing feel a little faster. While the characters aren’t highly developed due to the minimalist writing, you still get the gist of what their motivations are and their reasoning.

The action scenes are well done, and it’s in this and the deep philosophical examination of the humanness of robots that really makes this book interesting.

Now, unto the spoilers.

Spoilers Ahead!!! (You have been warned)

For anyone who is a fan of history like me, there are a lot of little Easter eggs in here, like the Yellow Emperor Huangdi being part of real Chinese mythology and Leizu being his wife. In this book she’s even called “the mother of silkworms” and according to tradition she is indeed attributed to the invention of the silk loom. This book is filled with both Chinese myths and Russian history.

There are a few small things that are never concluded by the characters. For example, on page 99 of the hardback version, June asks Peter about an old watch he has (he doesn’t respond at the time). Way later in the book, it is revealed that he got the watch from her grandfather on the battlefield and yet she never learns this fact. We the reader know it, but I see no reason for June to be kept in the dark.

A lot of vague statements are made about things throughout the book. Like June being “Chosen” but us never figuring out what that means. Who chose her? She’s not of much use to the plot, after all, except for putting Peter back together halfway through the book. How is Batuo (a monk turned robot and friend of Peter’s) able to put himself back together to finish off Talus (who is trying to kill June), but Peter can’t do the same for himself. Plus, Batuo drops dead right after anyway.

Now, I have to turn for a moment to romance—apologies. Throughout the book there are little hints of a possible romance between June and Peter. One, he is protective of her. Two, she notices his handsome looks (and muscular chest) more than a few times. And yet, by the end, there is no indication that that tension led to anything.

But nothing grated on my nerves as much as the chapters’ endings. Let me just say, I love chapters that end on a cliffhanger because they make you want to read more. However, cliffhangers are great only if they are true and far between.

Let me explain what I mean by using an example. At the end of chapter 25, June is alone with the unconscious body of Peter in the facility he brought her to. Batuo comes out of nowhere, makes the comment, “You must be strong to be here…Now let us find out how strong.” He steps forward and the chapter ends. Thus, you expect them to have some sort of fight and yet the next scene just starts with him stepping forward and welcoming her politely. I mean, what a shift. Don’t give me an intense cliffhanger just to have nothing happen in the next chapter.

Not only were there multiple false cliffhangers, but pretty much every chapter ended on a cliffhanger of some sort, turning it from being drama for an effect, to being expected and sometimes forceful drama. Those cliffhangers started to even give me soap-opera vibes by the end of the book.

Also, one point during the end confused me. It was made clear that Peter’s heart (or his essence, or soul) was actually from ancient China, not 18th century Russia. However, there is no indication that his sister Elena’s was also ancient, and yet in China, 3000 BC, Elena was magically there to help him escape Leizu. This aspect was really never explained.

Conclusion

Like I said early on, I liked this book. It was creative, interesting, complex, and fast-paced. Few fantasy try to blend philosophy, religion, and science together, and I thought this book did it well.

However, my main concern was that this book felt a little unpolished. It was like Wilson published the book before he had a chance to really shave off the rougher edges of the story.

Even so, I enjoyed it immensely. While not the best fantasy I have read, it’s certainly a book I wouldn’t mind recommending to anyone.

If you’ve read it, what are your thoughts about it? If you haven’t, are you interested in reading it? Let me know down in the comments, and, as always,

Best wishes on your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

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