Saturday, 11 August 2012

Review: The Clockwork Giant

The Clockwork Giant
The Clockwork Giant by Brooke Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this more than I did.

I hesitated between two and three stars. In the end I gave it three, because it is well edited and the writing shows promise, but for me there were significant issues with the story itself.

If you look at the author's blog, you will see that she's very into Vladimir Propp's analysis of fairy tales. I think this has had a few unfortunate effects.

First of all, a lot of the time I didn't think that the characters reacted like real people. For example: The protagonist's foster mother reveals that she's always known the protag's origin, but never told her, and never, apparently, made a serious attempt to find her family [SPOILER: the founding family of the city! Incredibly prominent!] because she didn't know how to contact them. Protagonist takes this without outrage or indeed much reaction at all.

It also means that the plot is kind of a cliche. Orphan, raised in poverty, of noble birth, destiny, treasured possessions which prove her heritage, blah blah blah, we've heard it a thousand times.

Worse than that, though, I think it creates an underlying set of narrative expectations that work against the surface story that the author is trying to tell, which is also the story that I wanted to read: the story of a competent, capable, strong female protagonist who (as she repeatedly says) doesn't need to be protected. But she totally does. Almost every decision she makes for herself is poorly thought through, gets her into worse trouble, and creates a situation where a man needs to rescue her (and does). The rest of the time she's passively reacting to what's going on around her. I can't think of a single instance where she was faced with a genuine choice and made, on her own, a well-judged, sensible, morally correct decision that arose out of her underlying character, which is what I want my heroes (male or female) to do.

I found my suspension of disbelief continually broken by the characters doing things that made no sense to me, and I think it was because the author was trying to write a steampunk story using fairy-tale tropes, instead of just writing either a steampunk story or a fairy story.

It's a pity, because the steampunk bits are excellent. The author gives the impression (at least to a layman like myself) that she actually understands how clockwork works, rather than just invoking it as a buzz word like so many steampunk authors do. There is, as usual, a bit more brass than is strictly necessary, and the Luddites are a bit displaced in time, but we expect this kind of license in the genre. What I don't expect, though, is a plot and characters based on fairy-tale thinking mixed in with the steampunk. For me, it didn't work.

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