Review: The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato (Harper Voyager, 2014, 368 pages)

Apparently, I’ve been a fan of all things “steampunk” for years, but I never knew it. At least, not until a year ago, when it all came together that my love of old technology, dirigibles, funky corsets, and the words “engine” and “gears” landed me squarely in the steampunk camp.

I set out to learn all I could about the various incarnations of steampunk aesthetics, and paid special attention to its development in contemporary fiction. That’s when I came across Beth Cato’s debut steampunk novel The Clockwork Dagger, and jumped on board that airship without so much as a “toodle-loo.”

Starting this novel was like being thrown out of a window and grabbing a stray line from a departing airship desperate to stay on schedule. We’re immediately drawn into the muck and misery of Caskentia, and introduced to Octavia Leander, a medician who is being sent to the frontier to cure a disease-ravaged community. Her journey will be treacherous, since she’ll be approaching the Waste, which has been at war with Caskentia for years.

Octavia is unusually skilled in the arts of “the Lady,” a mysterious entity that gives her and other medicians the power to heal. Trained at Miss Percival’s school after she was orphaned, Octavia soon realized that her powers and connection to the Lady and the mysterious healing Tree were unusually strong. Thus, she was shunned by the other medicians-in-training but doted on by Miss Percival.

All Octavia needs to do, at the start of the novel, is travel on the airship Argus to the towns of Vorana, Leffen, Mercia, and Delford; cure the inhabitants of their diseases with her herbs, powders, and the Lady’s  blessing; and settle down to a relatively quiet life on the frontier. Things don’t go as planned, and Octavia quickly finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy, with the Queen’s clockwork daggers (specially-trained spies and assassins) apparently hunting her down so that the Wasters don’t get to her first and make her queen of their realm to heal all of their people. And then it’s revealed that Miss Percival has sent her on this trip because she has sold her out to the Caskentian queen…

Nobody on the Argus is who they claim to be: Mrs. Stout is not just an older lady with a blue streak in her hair and a flair for writing novels, Alonzo Garrett is not simply a steward (and a very handsome steward, at that), and Mr. Drury has much more in mind for Octavia than simply selling her “Royal-Tea.” And then the threats and attempts on her life begin, and Octavia is left wondering why she, of all people, should be a target.

Cato offers us a bleak, gritty world in which cities and towns are firebombed, malnutrition is rampant, and the royal court remains locked up in the Caskentian palace, willing to let the entire realm rot if it means ultimate safety. Despite all of this, Octavia maintains her hope in the Lady and a future in which healers will find themselves nearly out of business and war will be a thing of the past. The allies she finds along the way (including a very plucky gremlin) confirm her belief in the power of faith and friendship.

And while Cato does give us detailed descriptions of street scenes and scuffles on board the airship, I wanted MORE. I wanted more information about the Queen and why she was so heartless toward her people. I wanted to learn more about Octavia’s childhood and the home that was destroyed during the war. I wanted to learn more about the Lady and the Tree and why only certain people were chosen to be medicians. Basically, I wanted this book to be about 400 pages longer.

Ultimately, The Clockwork Dagger is a skilfully-woven tale, complete with a love-story, an elaborate conspiracy, and a fascinating magico-spiritual healing system. This novel uses the familiar story of warring realms, locked in a perpetual and bloody struggle, as a backdrop to explore humanity’s more idealistic side. How many of us would defy orders and risk death  in order to save someone we just met but already care about? Who would venture with us into the unknown, just because they believe in us? Cato asks us to consider the relevance of these questions in our own lives, even if we don’t see airships outside of our windows.

(first posted on SF Signal 10/9/14)

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