First of all, I have to say I enjoyed Clockwork Heart very much, even if it skimmed a hair’s breadth between fantasy and steampunk, missing both and running smack dab into dystopic detective noir. I say that, but then I read it over and its not particularly good for any of these genres. Genre-bending? Well no, not in the same way as Cloud Atlas or Star Wars or Hard Boiled Wonderland. Is it good? I’m still not sure, but there’s two other books to get through, so I’m willing to give it a chance.
The ideas in here are fabulous, firstly. You’ve got a caste-based society that thrives on the flight metal Ondimium, a setting ripe for any Blade-Runner-esque cyberpunk. The scenery is distinctly sepia, and the writing is to the point, with no fancy terminology you often see in genres. It definitely smacks of indie, which is no surprise, because the publisher is Wildside Press, an indie house going back to 1989. By that I mean not every sentence is a brilliant one-liner, but put them together and it does make you think. I was also not terribly shocked to learn the author is a media professor and owns her own publishing house. It’s terribly vanilla stuff, but sometimes vanilla is comforting.
Then you’ve got a main character, Taya, who isn’t traditionally attractive, but appeals on the strength of her inner qualities because of it. We love Taya! Taya forever! She’s got one of the most breathtakingly beautiful steampunk jobs ever- flying messages between castes. A better Hermes archetype there is not, complete with the mischievous character quirks and the rumors of promiscuity. And then you’ve got a pair of high-caste brothers in a political intrigue, who, get this, both desire her but both run circles trying to win her affection, instead of asking straight out. This stuff could be daytime television, if that still exists. Oh, and apparently there’s some kind of bomb plot. So there’s that.
Here’s the rub: the parts are beautiful, but they don’t really work together cohesively. Each character and scene is gem-like and wonderful on their own, but none of them get enough screen time. All the set-ups to our tried and true tropes are here: the rocky love triangle, the suspicious characters, and the apparently advanced society with a terrible secret.
And Dru Pagliassotti hits two out of three, just not in a way that leaves you feeling like it resolved anything. The basic problems that are laid out in cyberpunk, and by extension steampunk, are generally resolved through some ironic twist of fate with a social parable intricately woven in. THIS NEVER HAPPENS. Instead the resolution in Clockwork Heart is a bit like the dystopic Clockwork Orange: our hero(ine) is resigned to accepting the status quo, smashed into social shape despite world-changing events. And almost as if society is rewarding her support of it, she comes out on top each time she does what it wants. This is the most anti-punk thing I can think of, as if the Sex Pistols went on a binge of abstinence.
As a piece of uplifting, genre-anachronistic fiction, Clockwork Heart does exactly what the icarii in the story do: fly you somewhere above the grit and give you a nice view. But as a book with so many ripe opportunities for class conflict, abuse of power and race discussion, it kind of falls flat. A+ for Anachronistic Romance. C- for Dystopic Steampunk.