Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.
“Pray, by the Lady let me mend thy ills.”
Octavia Leander is a recent graduate of Miss Percival’s academy for medicians. Under Miss Percival’s tutelage, Octavia has gone from an orphan with no future to being one of the most skilled healers in all of Caskentia. At only twenty-two, she is already a veteran of the warfront, where she worked to heal soldiers injured fighting for Caskentia in the ongoing conflict with the Wasters from beyond the mountains. With an armistice recently declared between Caskentia and the Waste, Octavia can finally leave the army behind, and set up a practice in a peaceful village far from the ravages of war, and the pollution of the big city. But as she journeys by airship towards the village of Delford, Octavia finds herself targeted in a series of mysterious and conflicting events, with foes who cannot seem to decide if they want to kidnap her or kill her. With the help of ship’s steward Alonzo Garrett, and her cabin mate, Mrs. Stout, Octavia hopes solve the mystery of her pursuers, and make it to Delford alive.
Beth Cato’s new steampunk adventure, the first in a duology, features a young woman setting out into the world on her own for the first time. Although she has served at the front, Octavia can still be somewhat naïve, and very altruistic. Her roommate, the older and wiser Mrs. Stout tries to protect her, but Octavia is headstrong and independent, and unwilling to be reined in. Although she is powerful medician, the fact that this is magical gift rather than a learned skill is brought home by how little Octavia really seems to understand the scope of her powers. Although she feels hurt by the rejection of the other Percival girls, who resent her difference, she has very little awareness of how others outside that insulated world will perceive her. Her obliviousness can be somewhat frustrating, but is balanced out by Alonzo, and Mrs. Stout, who are a little more experienced.
It takes a while to settle into Cato’s steampunk world and adjust to language that is sometimes trying just a little bit too hard to be old-timey and instead simply seems awkward. For example, it can be jarring to encounter a contraction in an otherwise formal sentence alongside archaic word choices. On the other hand, Cato’s old-fashioned curse words and exclamations are rather delightful. Once you are ensconced, Cato has created an intriguing and unusual world that combines science, religion, and magic in interesting ways that are not entirely explained. While Octavia believes fervently in the Lady, and views herself as simply a conduit for the Lady’s healing powers, others regard the Lady as a dying religion, and think that medicians are healing through some science that even they do not fully understand. Learning the truth about her powers seems likely to form a significant part of Octavia’s journey in the second installment.
The first part of the The Clockwork Dagger is a little bit slow, spending a lot of time on world building and character development. There are a few false starts, as Octavia struggles to figure out what is going on aboard the airship, and plenty of red herrings. However, the action picks up considerably in the later part of the book until it is difficult to put the story down. Although there is a lot of cool technology, and some interesting creatures, Octavia solves most of her problems with her magical abilities, which some readers may find tiresome after a while. The action is brought to a conclusion by a literal deus ex machina, which fits to a certain extent given that Octavia is struggling to understand the full extent of her powers as a medician, which derive from the Lady. The ending is rather tidy, but there is still plenty to explore in The Clockwork Crown, due out in September 2015.
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