CONVERSATIONAL REVIEW: Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti
Janine: When Jaili (Maili) and I recently found out we were reading the same little-known book from 2008, Dru Pagliassotti’s Clockwork Heart, we thought it would be fun to discuss it here at Dear Author. But first, a plot synopsis:
Clockwork Heart takes place in a fictional Industrial Age city-state called Ondinium. One of Ondinium’s industries is the mining of ondium, a precious metal lighter than air. Ondium is used to make wings for Ondinium’s icarii, flying messengers allowed to travel freely between Ondinium’s three sectors.
Ondinium is a divided city. Its citizens worship a goddess known as the Lady of the Forge and believe in reincarnation. Most of Ondinium’s citizens are divided into three castes, and the members of each caste live in separate sectors, and have their caste marks tattooed on their cheeks. Upper caste citizens are believed to be more enlightened than others, and are referred to as exalted. In theory the icarii, who do not belong to any caste, don’t have to defer to them, but the reality is different.
The story begins when its heroine, an icarus named Taya, comes to the aid of an exalted woman and her child who are trapped in a sabotaged wireferry. Taya is the closest icarus to spot Viera Octavus and her young son Ariq, and she carries Ariq down to safety, and then, with the help of her fellow icarus and ex-boyfriend Pyke, rescues Viera.
Taya and Pyke are questioned by a lictor, Ondinium’s equivalent of a police detective, who suggests that a group of anti-technology terrorists called the Torn Cards may have sabotaged the wireferry. The lictor asks Taya to watch out for anything suspicious from the air, and report such activities to the lictors.
Shortly afterwards, Taya delivers a message to the office of Decatur Alister Forlore, an exalted member of the ruling Council, at Oporphyr Tower. Taya arrives to find Decatur Forlore conversing with the man who has just finished repairing his clock. Unlike Decatur Forlore, who wears an exalted’s robes and jewels, the repairman is dressed in cheap clothing, so when he turns around, Taya is shocked to see that the repairman, too, has the exalted markings tattooed on his cheeks. He is a man who has chosen to live outside his caste.
The two men, Alister and Cristof, are brothers. They are also cousins to the woman Taya rescued, and they question Taya about Viera’s welfare. After Cristof departs, Alister offers Taya wine and flirts with her, and she is attracted to him enough so that she has to remind herself that she and Alister belong to different castes.
Later that night, Taya attends a family wedding in the low-caste Tertius sector. On her way home she is set upon by thugs who want to steal her ondium wings. Before they can do so, Cristof, Decatur Forlore’s brother, appears and helps her fight them off. Cristof takes Taya to his clock shop to care for her wings and they strike up a conversation. But when Taya leaves the shop, there is an explosion in a nearby refinery, and she begins to wonder if Cristof had something to do with it.
In the coming days, Taya meets both Cristof and Alister again. She goes on a date with Alister, who is as charming and friendly as his brother is surly and aloof. She is also feted by exalted in honor of her rescue of Viera and Ariq from the sabotaged wireferry, and she learns of Alister’s suspicions that the terrorists’ activities may be related to a program he is writing for the computer known as the Great Engine, which helps run Ondinium’s society.
The program, “Clockwork Heart,” is designed to predict which couples will have happy marriages. Alister thinks that the terrorists known as the Torn Cards may have learned of the program and may be willing to stop at nothing in order to prevent its use. And although Taya suspects that Cristof may be one of those terrorists, she finds that she is drawn to him and to Alister both…
And now for the conversational portion of this review:
Janine: Let’s start our discussion of Clockwork Heart with the question of genre. How would you categorize this book, or would you? There is no genre label on the spine of the book, and after thinking about it, I think it’s a true genre-bender, with elements of fantasy, mystery, romance, and science fiction of a steampunk flavor. What do you think?
Jaili: I went into Clockwork Heart thinking it was a steampunk historical romance because that was how it was described during a discussion about book recommendations. However, it isn’t as I expected. It’s genre-defying, but at the same time it isn’t. It’s a patchwork of genres, which turned out to be one of the best strengths – and the biggest weakness – of this novel.
Janine: Genre distinctions are important because they set reader expectations. I have to admit that in my case, I wanted more romance than what there was in this book. Yes, there is a romantic relationship that eventually develops, and it even has a happy ending, but it felt kind of cursory to me, and that made the book disappointing to me, despite the fact that it had several strong suits.
Jaili: You said it all. I also had no idea it featured a love triangle. If I had known, I wouldn’t have touched Clockwork Heart because I have a terrible habit of peeking at the end to see who the heroine will end up with. I used to suffer disappointment with other novels when the heroine didn’t choose the one I thought she should have chosen, hence the peek-at-the-end habit. I only do this with love-triangle novels. Because I don’t like peeking at the end, I avoid them. However, I could guess early who Taya might end up with because it was clear who the author favoured, which means I didn’t need to look at the end. Thank goodness!
Janine: I’m laughing because I peek at the end of love triangles also! And I did it in this case because I couldn’t guess. But since I don’t want to spoil which man Taya ends up with, I’ll just say that I felt they both had their problems. Alister, though elegant and loaded with charm, was a bit too slick and cavalier at first, while Cristof was a bit too prickly and standoffish at first. I wasn’t sure that either of them could make Taya happy, and I wasn’t completely convinced that the one she ended up with would do so, even at the end of the book.
Jaili: To be honest, there were moments when I felt Taya was a Mary Sue because not only the brothers were interested in her, there was her ex-boyfriend who seemed to carry a torch for her and there were a couple of other men who seemed to flutter their eyelashes at Taya. I think that contributed to a feeling the actual pairing wasn’t that convincing. I have heard, though, that there will be a sequel. Perhaps their relationship in the sequel will solidify enough to make it convincing.
Janine: Interesting thought about so many men being attracted to Taya. I didn’t pay attention to the Mary Sue aspect of that, but it’s a good point.
Let’s talk a bit about the book’s strengths. I was most impressed with the richly detailed world Pagliassotti crafted. Ondinium was a very complex place, with the castes that made up its social strata, the reincarnation religion, the 19th century technology, and the many characters which included foreign thieves, politicians, lictors, vendors, miners, programmers and icarii.
Jaili: Oh, yes. The worldbuilding was fantastic. I was truly impressed. There were many clear influences from a couple of Eastern cultures by the way of the caste system, the religion and some other elements, but I think Pagliassotti made it her own. Just about.
That said I had the impression it was a historical with a familiar setting, but it wasn’t. I’m still not even sure of the time setting. The only thing I know is it has 19th century-style technology, but the time setting? I have no idea. The past, the present or the future? I simply don’t know.
I think I even wondered if it was supposed to be similar to the society portrayed in Frank Herbert’s SF fantasy novel, Dune (which I have to say is the only SF fantasy novel I read! To my fantasy-mad husband’s distress, I’m not a fan of fantasy novels.) There is a slight similarity between the societies of Dune and Clockwork Heart, but I have very limited experience with fantasy novels, so perhaps my comparison may be wrong.
Janine: I think it was a fantastical steampunkish world, rather than one that has a connection to our own past, present or future. I agree that the blend of East and West worked because Pagliassotti made it her own. I was impressed by the way all the elements of the worldbuilding meshed almost seamlessly. The combination of complex yet accessible worldbuilding and the sympathetic characters reminded me a bit of some of Sharon Shinn’s books, like Heart of Gold and Jovah’s Angel.
Jaili: I take it back. Dune isn’t the only SF fantasy novel I’ve read because I’ve also read Jovah’s Angel! It’s a good comparison. You’re right, it does remind me of JA. I also agree that the elements merged very well, which is impressive for a debut author.
Janine: I thought the mystery was well constructed in the sense that I didn’t guess exactly what was going on and who the various villains were in advance, and I am usually good at sussing out such things.
Jaili: I guessed early and was proven right in the end, but there was little enough to hang my guess in question until it was confirmed. In fairness to Pagliassotti, I heavily read and watch mystery and crime fiction as well as romantic suspense. There are very few that surprise me nowadays. With this in mind I thought she did well with the mystery angle.
Janine: As I’ve hinted above, I think the sympathetic nature of the characters was another strength. But there was also a weakness in the characterization, which I didn’t really become aware of until I started wracking my brain to try to figure out why I didn’t enjoy the book more: The major characters didn’t really have much in the way of layers or hidden dimensions. I would have loved for the characters to be explored more in the course of the story, but for the most part, with the heroes of the book, what we saw was what we got.
Jaili: As I mentioned earlier, the book’s strength is its patchwork of genres, but it’s also the biggest weakness. It didn’t allow me to invest. When I read a romance novel, for instance, I adjust to-‘I suppose-‘a framework of a romantic story to invest myself in characters and their developing relationship in spite of its genre; let it be SF, mystery, urban fantasy and whatnot. With a crime novel regardless of whether it has a romantic element or not, I’d adjust mentally to figure out the mystery along with the fictional investigator.
Clockwork Heart didn’t have a major genre that I could adjust myself to. Because of Clockwork Heart’s genre-defying nature, I couldn’t cope with having to switch between mental adjustments constantly. Mystery. Fantasy. Romance. Adventure. I usually can cope with a typical novel with at least two elements, e.g. romantic suspense or futuristic romance, but Clockwork Heart is, in essence, a fantasy novel that has its own terminology with a world that I wasn’t familiar with. I think readers who enjoy fantasy novels wouldn’t have this problem, though.
Anyroad, it was interfering with my enjoyment of the story, so I chose to focus just on characters instead and found that they, as you say, didn’t have much depth or layers, which was quite disappointing.
In spite of all that I liked the characters, especially Taya. She was the saving grace because if I hadn’t liked her, I wouldn’t have finish the novel.
Janine: I agree that Taya was appealing even if she didn’t have as much depth as I would have liked.
Several of my favorite novels have blended genres, including Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Byatt’s Possession, Japrisot’s A Very Long Engagement, and Sharon Shinn’s angel books, among others. So I tend to think it all depends on how well integrated the genre elements are and whether such books are satisfying on more than one level.
It’s time to grade Clockwork Heart. This book is a tough one to grade, because my head and my heart are split. Usually my enjoyment level goes hand in hand with my intellectual assessment of a book. In this case, though, my enjoyment was no more than a C, while I think the craftsmanship deserves at least a B. I had a cold when I read the book, and it is possible I would have enjoyed it more had I been healthy, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt and a B-.
Jaili: I had no idea I would have problems with grading this book! It’s an excellent fantasy novel, no doubt. Even more so when we consider it’s a debut. I read somewhere online that Pagliassotti wrote the first draft of Clockwork Heart for a popular annual online event, National Novel Writing Month. Very impressive. As a steampunk-based fantasy novel, it’s excellent. Her use of 19th century technology in this setting is out of the world. As a romance novel? It’s so-so and I could do without the love triangle. I’m not a fan of love triangles, to be fair. A mystery? Also, so-so. Like the patchwork nature of Clockwork Heart, my initial grade was a patchwork: A, B and C.
I’m still disappointed it’s not a steampunk historical romance, but it gets an A- from me because of Pagliassotti’s craftsmanship, the worldbuilding, the steampunk element, and the fact I enjoyed it.