Harper Voyager, 2014.
I’ve never been a huge steampunk reader – possibly because I read William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen well before the style became vogue and I didn’t want to have my tastes disappointed by lesser works in the genre (Goblin Emperor, I’m looking at you again).
I’ve always liked the idea of steampunk, though — the style, the playfulness and the blend of science fiction and history — and when it works well, like the above examples (I’m not talking about the League movie, mind you), I love it.
So I was a little hesitant about Arizona author Beth Cato‘s debut novel, The Clockwork Dagger, which hits shelves on Tuesday. I didn’t want to be disappointed. And I wasn’t. Instead I was treated to an enjoyable blend of machines, murder and magic, set aboard a dirigible.
I was a little nervous at the start, however.
Cato introduces the reader to Octavia Leander, a gifted healer who is travelling to her first post in a distant, plague-ridden village, as she attempts to save a puppy that has been hit by a carriage. The scene is pretty harsh, and then when it seems like a little light is shining through, it reverts to the grimmest dark. Note to animal lovers — you’ve been warned.
Fortunately the tone lightens when Octavia boards the dirigible that will carry her to her post. She meets a handsome, one-legged steward, Alonzo Garrett, and shares a room with the aptly named dowager Mrs. Stout, a generous matron with a mysterious past. She spars with Mr. Drury a mustachioed traveling salesman peddling Royal Tea, the steampunk equivalent of Coca-Cola, who immediately evokes Snidely Whiplash. And she rescues a gremlin named Leaf, a cute flying critter that becomes a sort-of familiar.
But someone doesn’t want Octavia to reach her destination — the government of war-torn Caskentia has sent its superspies, dubbed “Clockwork Daggers” on her ship, and agents of the enemy Wasters are pursuing her as well. Everything comes to a head when an attempt is made on Octavia’s life, and other passengers start dying.
I spoke with Cato about Clockwork Dagger recently and she described the book as Murder on the Orient Express, but on an airship. It’s an apt description. There’s plenty of mystery, double-crosses and triple-crosses, all centered around secrets hidden by a long-dead princess, whose murder started the war between Caskentia and the Wasters. And Octavia’s remarkable healing powers hold the key to the mystery.
I particularly like the way she blended magic into the steampunk setting. The cliché of steampunk is Victorian or Old West with airships, pneumatic robots and such. With A Clockwork Dagger I was more reminded of Brandon Sanderson‘s Mistborn series — a decaying fantasy setting on the cusp of modernity where magic and technology have an uneasy relationship. The magic system seems elegant and simple — with medicians (healers) and elemental-based magicians.
Of course there is plenty of romance and lead-in for a sequel — Cato has promised a duology and The Clockwork Crown is coming next September. She also isn’t ruling out revisiting Caskentia in future novels.
So steampunk fans, or simply fans of unconventional fantasy settings, have plenty to look forward to from this budding author.
And she more than made up for the puppy.
Readers in Arizona can meet Cato, hear passages from The Clockwork Dagger and sample some of the baked goods from her blog “Bready or Not” when she hosts a release party at Changing Hands Bookstore on Friday, Sept. 19. So if you’re in Arizona, hold off and buy at the party and support the best bookstore in the Valley.