Disclosure: When I reviewed Beth Cato’s debut The Clockwork Dagger last year, I had not met her. Since then I’ve profiled her for the local newspaper, shared tacos and beer with her, and sampled her incredible biscoff fluffernutter bars.
And while I do consider her a friend in the Valley writing community, I don’t want that to color my review. I strive for objectivity, so I’m a little hesitant about reviewing her sequel, The Clockwork Crown. But then I reviewed her recent e-novelette, The Deepest Poison, so I obviously don’t care too much.
But what I noticed from my meetings and interactions with her over the past year was how much of Cato is invested in her main character, the magical healer, or medician, Octavia Leander. Having gotten to know the author, I see her personality throughout the story.
And while The Clockwork Dagger felt unsure at times, The Clockwork Crown has a much more assured tone. The growth between the two books is noticeable. That’s not to say that Clockwork Dagger is a weak debut, mind you — it is a Locus finalist this year. But Clockwork Crown is stronger throughout.
It picks up shortly after the events of Dagger. Betrayed by her former mentor Miss Percival, Octavia and former “clockwork dagger” Alonzo have fled war-torn Caskentia to the Southern kingdoms with assassins dogging their trail. Octavia is trying to discover the source of her heightened healing powers — powers which threaten to drive her mad whenever she is in a crowd as she is able to intimately hear all the ailments around her.
As an introvert who has problems with crowds myself, I can relate to Octavia’s claustrophobic feelings, and Cato captured them masterfully in Clockwork Crown.
While the story primarily follows Octavia as she tries to determine why she has been chosen by The Lady, the world tree that grants her healing powers, we also see the far-reaching damage to Caskentia, not just the cursed, barren country where the Wasters relentlessly fight the Caskentians, but the rot that has infected the capital city of Mercia. There are betrayals aplenty, but they all seem to drive Octavia closer to The Lady, and to the heart of the corruption that is poisoning the land.
While Dagger developed an intimate portrait of all the main players — Octavia, Alonzo and the mysterious Ms. Stout — Crown shines in its world-building. We see the skeptical culture of the South, as well as the crumbling city of Mercia. The opposing sides of the war and their motives are more blurred, Cato has said she modeled the conflict between Caskentia and the Waste after World War I (something driven home in The Deepest Poison). The steampunk technology also felt more developed Clockwork Crown.
There were other touches throughout Crown that I appreciated, as a fan of the gremlin Leaf from Dagger, I enjoyed seeing his gremlin brethren, including the giant mecha-gremlin Chi. I also loved Octavia’s loyal steed, transformed by The Lady’s power into a sort-of wooden spirit horse, who constantly called to his master “ridemeridemerideme”.
And I appreciated the way Cato wove redemption into the ending of her story. Fantasy is so immersed in grimdark now, it’s nice to see some beauty now and then.
Clockwork Crown hits stores on Tuesday.