This book is a delightful journey through an unusual fantasy world where machines and magic co-exist. While I didn’t find the heroine initially engaging, her talent for spotting the flaws in structures and the phrase “clown engines” intrigued me enough to keep me reading–and it was fascinating to see how the author used both of those elements to her advantage.
Elena is on the run from the baron who founded a movement against the Gear Tourniers: skilled makers of marvelous and elegant devices. The baron claims to act on behalf of common people, to give them the chance to participate in the creation of the things they need by working in factories after overturning the domination of the Gear Tourniers, and the Curator who stands above them all.
Along the way, Elena meets a variety of interesting characters–a scarred maker, an actor, a silver stag, a woman with amazing control over her body language. The complex relationships among these people add layers of tension and build the reader’s engagement with the book as you wonder how they will achieve their objectives. With this three-dimensional and striking cast of characters, McDougal delivers a rooting interest for just about anyone.
So, the flaws. As I said, it took me a while to warm to the protagonist–that’s one reason it took me so long to finish. As the work progressed, she rarely seemed to be the driving engine of the plot, it was often the others in her group who were making the important choices and taking necessary action, so the effect is more of an ensemble. In the last third of the book, when the characters split up to undertake various missions, the timelines don’t match up in a way that was confusing to follow, and made me think that, if it had been worked out more carefully, some of the plot elements simply wouldn’t work. One group of characters had a more-or-less continuous scene (in terms of the time they spent) but it was intercut with the actions of another group of characters which appear to take place over a period of days. Also, there are occasional intrusions of modern words or phrasings which stuck out in this otherwise distinctive world, and I’m not convinced that her use of technology is consistent with the time period emulated.
But if you like automata and antique machinery, this book will inspire your sense of wonder, pretty much from beginning to end. McDougal constantly reveals new marvels of gear and steam. The true Steampunk fan might be put off by the inclusion of talents of magical origin, but the author describes this as a “Maker” book–and, as a celebration of marvelous creation, it is spot-on.