Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
I’m still trying to figure out what, exactly, “steampunk” is. As far as I can tell, it involves an alternative history wherein modern-like, steam-driven technology is incorporated into a Victorian-era setting (generally the late 19th or early 20th centuries). Basically, imagine a science fiction novel as it might have been written in 1900.
Bonnie Dee’s new novella, Like Clockwork, is a good example of the genre. I also know that it was a fun, diverting way to spend an afternoon; I only wish that it were longer, that the characters, the relationships, and the world could have been more complexly developed. This was, in short, a novella that should have been a novel.
The summary, courtesy of the Carina Press website:
Victoria’s work with automatons has gained her renown and changed the face of London. But her concern that the clockworks are taking too many jobs away from humans, creating social unrest, is ignored. Given the ugly mood of the underclass, she fears more outbreaks of violence similar to the murder spree of the notorious Southwark Slasher.
Dash, unemployed thanks to the clockworks, has pledged fealty to The Brotherhood, a group determined to bring about the downfall of the automatons by any means necessary. His plan to kidnap Victoria goes awry when the unorthodox scientist pledges her assistance to their cause.
Despite their opposite social classes, a bond grows between them, and Victoria begins to feel emotions she never expected for the passionate Dash. But when the Slasher strikes close to home, Dash and Victoria realize that the boundaries of polite society are far from the only threat to their happiness…
It’s an interesting concept, one that caught my attention as soon as I read the description. An alternate history, a class-crossed romance, a serial killer–where could I go wrong?
And it doesn’t. Like Clockwork is a fast, fun read. Unfortunately, it was so fast that I felt like it was missing something.
Dee creates a fun, interesting world, and there were a lot of things I would have liked to have seen more of/known more about. How does the world cope with the automatons (who look, thanks to Victoria’s work, exactly like humans) wandering around? Did the people adapt quickly, or was this change thrust upon them by the upper classes? Does the Brotherhood represent a fringe minority, or are most of England’s lower classes in agreement that the automatons represent a threat to society? What does a world that’s a mix of humans and automatons look and feel like? We’re given one brief scene where Victoria sees an automaton nanny pushing a child in a stroller. Other than that, the only automaton I recall actually seeing in the story is Victoria’s butler, Patterson–who does, in fact, play an important part in the plot. But Dash’s whole argument is that automatons are detrimental to society, taking the jobs that the lower classes once occupied and pushing more and more poor people out into the street. I wanted to see and feel this for myself, but most of what we get is secondhand from Dash. Since Victoria, the female lead, actually helped design the things, it left me thinking, “Well, maybe those automatons aren’t all bad.”
I wanted a greater depth to Victoria and Dash’s characters. Both Victoria and Dash exhibit unusual traits for their station: Victoria, a well-bred woman, is a scientist, while Dash, who was brought up on the streets, is intelligent and well-read. They’re both likeable characters in their own ways, but I wanted to know more. I wanted to feel their depth and dimensionality.
But mostly, I wished that Dee would have taken more time to develop Victoria and Dash’s relationship. They “meet” when Dash kidnaps and chloroforms Victoria, intended to use her as leverage to get the Brotherhood’s viewpoint heard by the Commission for Anamatronic Affairs. When Victoria awakens, she doesn’t react in fear; instead, when Victoria realizes he’s not intending to rape and/or kill her, she agrees to help him. Hours later, he brings her back to her house and they kiss for the first time.
Hours? Really? Even if I can buy that a kidnapping victim would fall in love with her captor–which I have trouble with, but it’s such a common trope of romantic fiction that it’s not really fair to fault the story for that–it wouldn’t happen that day. But all right, let’s go with that. Victoria does realize almost immediately that Dash doesn’t intend to harm her, and she is a sexually repressed Victorian (no pun intended); maybe her libido just got the better of her. But the entire story takes place, if I’m not mistaken, over the course of about a week. Victoria and Dash go, almost instantly, from being victim and kidnapper to being head-over-heels in love with one another. This is the kind of relationship that has major challenges and obstacles. She’s a well-bred woman from a wealthy background, and he’s an unemployed pretty criminal without two cents to rub together. And while we’re reminded of these challenges, I never really felt them–and half the fun of romantic fiction is watching the couple overcome the challenges that conspire to keep them apart.
I feel like I’m being unduly harsh here, and maybe that’s not fair. I liked this book. Dee is a good writer, and I’d like to see more of her work. The story reads well and is easy to follow, and the book makes for enjoyable Saturday afternoon reading. But there were so many cool, interesting aspects of this story that I just didn’t feel like I had enough of. So although I enjoyed the book that was, I also find myself mourning the book that might-have-been.
Note: I received this as an ARC courtesy of NetGalley. Like Clockwork will be available as an e-book from Carina Press on December 13.