Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Doubleday Books (August 1, 2017)
Length: 320 pages
When I first heard about A Clockwork Dynasty, I confess I was intrigued. With its mix of steampunk and robotics and history and magic, it sounded like quite a departure from Daniel H. Wilson’s previous novels and I was curious to see how the author would tackle something different.
Well, I’m happy to report that it turned out great. Weaving together the past and present, this story actually works on two levels, alternating between the perspective of a young anthropologist in modern day Oregon and that of a mechanical avtomat resurrected by a Russian machinist the early 1700s. The book opens with a scene featuring young June Stefanov, listening at her beloved grandfather’s knee as he tells her the story of his encounter with a mechanical soldier in World War II. Upon his death a couple years later, he leaves her with a keepsake from that confrontation, a piece of relic that June wears close to her heart even as she grows to adulthood and becomes a leading expert in ancient technologies. The focus of her latest research project is the amazing discovery of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical writing doll, whose secrets June is anxious to unlock before the extraordinary machine can fall into wrong hands.
Meanwhile, between June’s chapters, an even more mysterious narrative is unfolding. Peter Alexeyvich remembers his life beginning in the court of Peter the Great for whom he was named, awakened by the Czar’s loyal mechanician Giacomo Favorini. But in fact, his origins might date back to even more ancient times. Together with his “sister” Elena Petrova, a clockwork girl that he meets in Favorini’s lab, the two mechanical beings spend the next hundred years fleeing their enemies and attempting to fit into society, all the while struggling with nagging existential questions and trying to find out more about themselves.
Unlike Amped or Robopocalypse which are the author’s other novels I have on my shelves, The Clockwork Dynasty is less involved with futuristic technologies and more concerned with history and magic. However, it is clear that his love for writing about intelligent machines is still as strong as ever. Wilson also brings the past to life with careful precision, allowing his readers to experience everything from early 18th century Russia to Victorian-era London. I was surprised to find myself actually favoring the chapters that transported us back in history, following Peter’s harrowing journey to escape the political turmoil that followed his czar’s death in 1725. His character has seen so much in all the centuries, with his chapters always containing something fascinating and new. However, that’s not to say June’s chapters were uninteresting or not as fun to read—good thing too, since the other half of the story is told from her point-of-view. This is where Wilson’s talent for writing action comes in. As June attempts to unravel the mysteries behind the writing doll, she unwittingly stumbles into a world of danger and deception. Before long, we’re being treated to plenty of exhilarating Terminator-style scenes as she becomes the target of a relentless mechanical assassin.
Still, I won’t lie; the constant back-and-forth switching between the past and the present was somewhat distracting, though in all fairness I have never been that good with non-linear storytelling. The format took some getting used to, but thankfully the author made it easier with his excellent characterization and plot development.
My favorite aspect of the story was hands down the relationship between Peter and Elena. Forever trapped in a synthetic body looking like a 12-year-old girl, the character of Elena was very reminiscent of Claudia from Interview with the Vampire, and likewise Peter’s fierce protectiveness of her reminds me very strongly of Louis. Exiles in more ways than one, the two clockwork humans are forced to hide their true nature wherever they go, and Peter must also face the consequences of Elena’s choices as she grows more and more frustrated with the limitations imposed on her because of the outward appearance of her age and sex. Likewise, in the present, June has to overcome her terror and confusion to deal with the threat hunting her, and her eventual alliance with Peter is the impetus that drives the evolution of her character. It was definitely nice to discover more to this book than cheap action and thrills, and beneath the surface is a thread that actually explores deeper issues like the search for purpose and what it means to be human.
If you have enjoyed Daniel H. Wilson’s books in the past, I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll enjoy this one too. The Clockwork Dynasty is, on its surface, two stories in one, but the two narratives are woven so cleverly together that what we have here in the end is a saga worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, packed with action, intrigue, and heartfelt moments.