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REVIEW: Like Clockwork by Bonnie Dee

Dear Ms. Dee:

One of the great things about NetGalley is that reviewers can browse, and while I was browsing through new Romance releases, I came across your novella, "Like Clockwork," which intrigued me because of the interesting cover, the steampunk aspect, and the female inventor heroine. Although some readers dislike novellas, I think they often work for stories that are too sprawling to fit in a short story but not dense enough to fill out an entire novel. Unfortunately, "Like Clockwork" felt too packed and too ambitious for a novella, and for me the novella did not have either the precision or rhythm it needed to be successful.

Like Clockwork by Bonnie DeeIn the penultimate year of the 19th century, Victoria Waters is starting to regret the part she played in creating the automatons who have all but replaced the working class people of London. Displaced and impoverished, many of these people now live in the underground tunnels around the "tube" station, and a radical advocacy group, the Brotherhood, has emerged in grave opposition to the displacement of humans by machines. Victoria's original vision had been quite the opposite – she hoped to make workers, especially children who labored in factories, safer by allowing for the substitution of machines in the most dangerous labors. Now, though, automatons are acting as nannies, as butlers, as factory workers, and more, and Victoria is on her way to make a case for caution to the Commission for Animatronic Affairs.

In a hurry, and late as usual, Victoria absentmindedly answers the man who addresses her on the train platform, only to find herself chloroformed and carried off by a man she did not know or recognize. In a city currently terrorized by the female-murdering "Southwark Slasher," the average woman might take more note of her surroundings, but Victoria is hardly average, and neither is the man who abducts her, a member of the Brotherhood named Dash. The Brotherhood knows she is on her way to the Royal Court and is hoping that by taking her prisoner they can get the Commission to recognize their demand for equal representation on the Commission.

To Dash's surprise, Victoria quickly recovers from her initial fear and anger over the drugging and abduction and agrees to help the Brotherhood make their case to the Commission. Further, Victoria realizes that she feels toward Dash "something she'd never felt before, a sort of heat that surged through her when she tilted her face to meet his eyes." In fact, they develop such a strong accord that when their discussion is interrupted by news of another Slasher victim – this time a young prostitute who had taken Dash under her wing in years past – Victoria takes him to her house to recover his wits.

Dash, despite his terrible shock, is attracted to Victoria, as well, and by the time she sees him off, they hungrily kiss, interrupted only by the knock of Victoria's wonderfully efficient butler, Patterson, an animatronic gift from the Commission for Victoria's work. As Dash finally leaves her house – securing Victoria's promise to help the brotherhood and her desire to find out what the police know about the young Lizzie's death, both Dash and Victoria are dazed and off-kilter with the monumental events of the day and their powerful mutual attraction.

What follows is an intertwined tale of murder mystery and romance, with Victoria and Dash becoming increasingly entangled in each other's lives and in the violence that ultimately touches both of them after Victoria's scientific mentor and friend is brutally, inexplicably murdered. It is, to say the least, a great deal of action pressed into a relatively short space, since that first day the two meet comprises more than 40% of the novella.

As Dash leaves Victoria's house, he has a thought that floated through my head multiple times during the story: "[t]oo much had happened within too short a time." And what did happen was of a character requiring more than half a none-too-long novella.

For example, Victoria and Dash are not only of different classes, but Dash does not even possess a formal first or last name beyond Dash, short for "Grab "n' dash," which his friends named him after he showed a skill at stealing. Although both lack their parents, Victoria is considered an educated "lady," while Dash is a graduate of a street education, and he currently has no real trade (although he was mentored and partially educated by a now-dead bookseller for a time). And while this story takes place as Victorian values were in decline, it was still no small thing for a couple like Dash and Victoria to be unusual, something both of them recognize (with Dash making the usual nobly defensive noises about her being a lady and he being a criminal). But by the second time they meet they are making out in a park across from Victoria's house, and the nuances of this relationship – of which class differences are merely one of many different issues – are brushed over, in part because the mystery aspects of the novella are similarly pressing.

In some ways there is a great deal at issue here. There are the social issues that comprise the story's impetus – namely the question of ethics around replacing humans with machines. These are very real questions the story raises but, unfortunately, does not have the time to consider beyond superficial statements like the following:

"You, madam, gave flesh to the automatons, but did you ever once consider what would happen to the workers your creations displaced? There's little enough the uneducated lower classes can do. Menial labor, factory jobs, serving positions are now mostly filled by automatons."

Which left many of the city's poor living underground in the tunnels around the underground railway station. Which raised a number of questions for me around the plausibility of people living in an enclosed space through which the chemical waste of coal-fueled steam-powered trains flowed.

Then there were the steampunkish aspects of the story, which seemed primarily limited to the science necessary to create the automatons. Victoria, we know, helped create the skin and hair, a "poly-blend" as it is referred to in the story. Now I confess my general ignorance in the area of chemistry and synthetic and natural polymers, but I do seem to remember that beyond vulcanized rubber, it was a good fifty years until truly synthetic polymers were being manufactured for things like cloth and yarn. And since this is still a society that powers its trains with coal and steam, and its lights with gas (Victoria even lives on Gaslight Lane), I felt a huge disconnect between the advanced science of these synthetic polymers and the rest of the scientific knowledge available to people. And it made me wonder: wouldn't this kind of science rely on other areas of progress, from electricity to various advancements in chemistry and plastics?

Regarding the nature of the romance and the mystery, I just could never get past the fact that within minutes (it seemed, at least) of Victoria's abduction, she was on board with the Brotherhood's agenda, merely on Dash's impassioned comments to her regarding the automatons and her own concerns. And the speed of the romance is equally break-neck. Dash has been attracted since he carried her, unconscious, away from the train platform (which raised another issue for me – how come no one saw or stopped him? The guy was dragging/carrying an unconscious woman quite a long way, it seemed): "A hot stab of lust shot through him at the sweet vulnerability of her sleeping face. He frowned at his body's inappropriate reaction. This was about a political agenda, not him growing a stiff one because of an unconscious female in his arms."

As grateful as I was that he recognized the inappropriateness of his reaction, it was also standard romance code for "impending relationship' and served to highlight the unbelievable speed of Dash and Victoria's involvement. And the speed relies on numerous clichés and shortcuts to complete its course in such limited space. For example, we get a scene in which Victoria and Dash ride a carousel, so that Dash can reconnect to his childhood idealism and both can feel free enough to indulge in a little make-out session in the park's bushes. We get the impassioned kisses in Victoria's home and the talk of how isolated she was growing up, how little opportunity an otherwise beautiful and wealthy woman has had to find an appropriate male. We get Dash's break of confidence in his own worthiness and Victoria's stubborn faith in him (after only a few days, it seems!).

In fact, the speed never seems to let up, because while the main narrative is relatively chaste (Victoria remains a virgin throughout the body of the story), there is an epilogue that takes place a mere five months later and it felt as if the story itself has moved relatively slowly in comparison. I would have been so much happier if that epilogue – given the complex issues between Victoria and Dash, as well as the complex issues with which they were dealing in the story – had either taken place several years later or had not been included at all, because for me it undermined rather than solidified the status of their relationship.

And finally, the mystery of the Slasher, which is woven into and around the rest of the story. There was a wry irony to the solution, one that brought into focus a central tension in the story itself – namely that of seeing machines and potentially threatening versus seeing power-hungry humans as threatening in the way they could use machines. The story plays with both options, initially leading us in one direction, but abruptly changing course late in the novella, in a direction I actually found much less interesting, although infinitely more convenient for the pace and length of the story.

In the end, I had to wish that this story ticked along at a much more leisurely pace, one that would allow the science, the mystery, the political and economic issues, and the romance to develop more slowly and more thoughtfully. Unfortunately, at the rate this novella traveled, it was, for me, an unsatisfying journey. D

~ Janet

Book Link | Kindle | nook | Sony | Carina Press

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

8 Comments

  1. DS
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 17:37:09

    It sounds like the automatons are in positions that require executive functions rather than stimulus/response. Most speculative fiction I have read involving robots/automatons explores the issues of the underclass/working class, using robots as stand ins as issues of race and class are explored. (The alternative is the John Henry type story where a human is shown to be superior to a machine.)

    I was really struck by the quote you referenced

    “You, madam, gave flesh to the automatons, but did you ever once consider what would happen to the workers your creations displaced? There's little enough the uneducated lower classes can do. Menial labor, factory jobs, serving positions are now mostly filled by automatons.”

    No intention to raise humans above the menial labor, factory jobs, serving positions by dent of education and skills. However, most servitor jobs would be considered skilled work, just ill paid in the Victorian era.

    The workers need to regain their chains?

    Maybe I’m over-thinking this, but it seems like there could have been a lot more there. I was also struck by the fact that the female character didn’t do any of the internal work on the machines, only provided their skin.

    Ok, now I know I’m over-thinking this.

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  2. DS
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 18:23:51

    God, I just reread what I wrote and it doesn’t make much sense. I read the review and it made me think of a lot of things (such as how clockwork automatons could be able to perform executive functions) and it all came pouring out.

    I guess I have to say Robin that you wrote a very thought provoking review.

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  3. Heather Massey
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 19:28:44

    I recently finished this story and agree that the length didn’t do the story justice. Everything felt very compressed.

    Now, though, automatons are acting as nannies, as butlers, as factory workers, and more

    I found the bit about the automaton nanny very eerie and thought provoking and wanted that explored much more. As it stands, it’s almost a throwaway bit, which is a shame.

    I felt a huge disconnect between the advanced science of these synthetic polymers and the rest of the scientific knowledge available to people.

    I actually bought into that element because I feel it makes the scientist protagonists unique in some way (speaking generally about these types of characters), in other words that they are able to engineer such scientific breakthroughs. On the one hand I agree it would be ideal to have as much consistency as possible in the worldbuilding, but the sensawonder side of me loves the cool tech even if its development within the story is flawed.

    I just could never get past the fact that within minutes (it seemed, at least) of Victoria's abduction, she was on board with the Brotherhood's agenda

    This is another area where I felt the length jeopardized the tale. The abduction promised a ton of interpersonal conflict (juxtaposed against some potentially intriguing external conflict), and then right after that event, whoosh, the hero and heroine were suddenly on the same page. There really wasn’t much tension or conflict after that moment.

    It sounds like the automatons are in positions that require executive functions rather than stimulus/response.

    That’s why I found the bit with the nanny so haunting. If the automatons’ functions were stimulus/response based, then whoa! Why are characters so willing to entrust them with the safety of children? If the automatons had executive function, then the story could have explored the idea of adaptive behaviors and even sentience. So many potential issues could have been explored.

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  4. Janet/Robin
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 19:34:50

    @DS: Oh, DS, I understand completely, lol. I actually kind of felt that way when I was reading the novella. I kept stopping to think about things and play them out in my head, and it was almost overstimulating, like one of those dehydrated sponges you dunk in water, whereupon it grows to like ten times its original size.

    Your point about SF is relevant, and I tried to hint at that issue in the review, but it would have pulled me deep into spoiler territory, so I did not. And the story does not, ultimately, place those issues front and center, although the two strains in SF you note are raised. Race, though, is not really addressed in the book, and your reference to having the workers reclaim their chains is, I really think, more a function of too much within too short a space than anything else. As for Victoria’s work on the automatons, that is an interesting point, but it’s her contributions that give the machines their humanoid appearance, which in some ways makes her very central to their rapid assimilation into society.

    There was just a boatload of stuff crammed into a locker-sized novella. And unfortunately, because of the short space, the kitchen sink feel of multiple genre devices (some of which conflicted with each other, some of which were terribly cliched, others which were fascinating but not necessarily followed through to their logical conclusion, and others still that had some surface level issues that kept tripping me up), and the social, economic, political, and scientific implications, I knew I couldn’t hope to write a review that really explained my full response to the book. Consequently, I tried to focus on the romance aspects, since that’s how the book was classified, and touch on some of the other issues that hit me particularly strongly.

    My grade is obviously not in the recommended reading territory, but I’d be interested in knowing what someone who is much better versed in both steampunk and SF (I don’t read nearly as much SF as I used to) than I thinks about the novella.

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  5. Janet/Robin
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 19:39:25

    @Heather Massey: IIRC, Victoria is herself kind of taken aback when she sees the automaton nanny in the street, thinking about how much of a leap there was from having an automaton do repetitive factory work to having it take care of a child. But as you said, it wasn’t really pursued.

    Thanks for your other comments. I obviously had a harder time with the polymer breakthrough than you did, but it’s something I struggled with, re. could you have one type of scientific breakthrough without concurrent or previous advances. Do you think there needs to be a specific reason for the presence of a particular technology beyond its use as a plot point?

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  6. Heather Massey
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 20:58:49

    Do you think there needs to be a specific reason for the presence of a particular technology beyond its use as a plot point?

    Good question. My answer is not always, particularly if there’s an entertaining story delivered after said plot point. I approach inventions such as the polymer as achievements ahead of their time (e.g., the way Nikola Tesla invented devices that were ahead of their time), and taking place in an alternate reality/history, however slightly removed.

    I also make a purely subjective assumption that the scientists would build whatever system is necessary to manufacture the devices in question. Because they’d kinda hafta be smart like that. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that. :) And I like the fantasy of a scientist being that much of a genius.

    That said, if the story also delivers a specific reason for the presence of the technology, I’m not going to complain! Your point about the disconnect issue is a very important one, especially given the serious themes LIKE CLOCKWORK attempted to address. But I tend to be forgiving of the disconnects (and not always concerned, frankly) if the story delivers in other ways.

    If you think about it, the idea of automatons in general is really very fantastical. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief quite a bit where they are concerned, simply because I’m so enamored of such characters.

    Maybe I’m a strange reader: I enjoy both stories with the technology disconnect and those without it. I find that sometimes when the disconnect is present, it’s indicative of other problems, but not always (in my experience).

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  7. janicu
    Jan 03, 2011 @ 23:39:45

    I read this story because harlequin was offering it for free as part of their 12 deals of Christmas. I had the same issue — the novella length was too short to contain everything that happened and the story suffered for it. There were characters introduced (people of the Brotherhood who wanted to go in another direction for instance) who weren’t fully explored, and I’d love to see more development in their overcoming their class differences.

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  8. Gail S.
    Jan 13, 2011 @ 14:06:57

    Just FYI–people Did live in the tunnels, even with the coal-fired trains, though for a while, the tunnels were open to the air on some stretches…

    I haven’t read this, and probably won’t because of the length. I generally don’t like novellas, because they’re just too short.

    ReplyReply

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