I’m delighted to be helping to kick off the blog tour for A Clockwork River today! Sadly the supply issues that are affecting publishing at the moment meant that the book reached me a little too late to bring you a full review, but I have plenty of thoughts about my first impressions.
Book: A Clockwork River by JS Emery
Publication date: 7th October 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Head of Zeus. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: (incomplete as I haven’t read the whole book!) mentions of suicide; mentions of death in childbirth; death of a parent (in backstory); minor violence.
Lower Rhumbsford is a city far removed from its glory days. On the banks of the great river Rhumb, its founding fathers channelled the river’s mighty flow into a subterranean labyrinth of pipes, valves and sluices, a feat of hydraulic prowess that would come to power an empire. But a thousand years have passed since then, and something is wrong. The pipes are leaking, the valves stuck, the sluices silted. The erstwhile mighty Rhumb is sluggish and about to freeze over for the first time in memory.
In a once fashionable quarter of the once great city, in the once grand ancestral home of a family once wealthy and well-known, live the last descendants of the city’s most distinguished engineer, siblings Samuel and Briony Locke.
Having abandoned his programme in hydraulic engineering, Samuel Locke tends to his vast lock collection, while his sister Briony distracts herself from the prospect of marriage to a rich old man with her alchemical experiments. One night Sam leaves the house carrying five of his most precious locks and doesn’t come back…
As she searches for her brother, Briony will be drawn into a web of ancestral secrets and imperial intrigues as a ruthless new power arises. If brother and sister are to be reunited, they will need the help of a tight-lipped house spirit, a convict gang, a club of antiques enthusiasts, a tribe of troglodytes, the Ladies Whist Club, the deep state, a traveling theatrical troupe and a lovesick mouse.
Epic, rollicking and in love with language, Jacob and Sara Emery’s sprawling debut novel of humble kitchen magics and awe-inspiring civil engineering is a rare and delicious commodity – the world’s first hydropunk novel.
The extremely long blurb above is an excellent indicator that this book is really, really hefty. It clocks in, in hardback, at 717 pages of story (plus end matter), so it’s a real doorstopper, and that’s why when it arrived only a week before my tour date (through no fault of the publisher!), I panicked a little bit. I may be a lover of chonky books, but my toddler’s put paid to my ability to sit and inhale that many pages in so short a time! Still, I managed to read the first 150 pages, and I think that’s enough to give you an idea of my first impression.
The most striking thing about this book is the writing, which is very mannered. I think it will be immediately apparent to you if you’re going to get on with this book or not – there’s an absolute ton of description, down to the minutest detail, and the narrative meanders where it will rather than getting down to the action. Chapter three, for example, opens with first a five-line sentence and then one that takes seventeen lines to get to its point! It’s the kind of thing that you’ll either find fascinatingly constructed or impossibly dense; I’m in the former category. It reminded me a lot of the style of Gormenghast, though the characters are more Dickensian and the setting has very Bioshock aesthetics, with a decaying but previously glamorous water-filled city. Much of it has the feel of Victorian London, but subtly different, and the social descriptions hint at some really interesting worldbuilding, but I haven’t seen too many concrete elements yet to discuss the differences between this world and ours, but I’m hopeful this will become more prominent as the characters get drawn deeper into the workings of the city. However, I think that the dry wit and deliberately obscure style makes this feel like a very specific vibe that’s hard to describe, but fun to experience. The ponderous prose is the kind of thing you just have to let wash over you, and I found that as long as I didn’t try to pay equal attention to every word, each scene actually runs along at quite a pace. It’s accessibly dense, if that makes any sense at all.
The opening chapters had me very invested in Sam and Briony from the get-go. I love stories of siblings raised in weird old houses with esoteric educations, and both of them are endearingly strange characters. However, the blurb makes it sound as though the story will be centred on them, and on Briony in particular, but I’m a quarter of the way through the book and so far, there really doesn’t seem to be an actual central focus. There are dozens of characters and although they all seem to be at least tangentially related to Sam or Briony, the siblings appear to have no more weight in the plot than anybody else. In fact, I’m not really sure what the plot is, so far – and it’s quite a big ask for someone to stick with a book that’s just vibes and description. That being said, the wandering narrative makes it very easy to think ’oh, one more chapter’, as they’re so varied, and I’m excited to keep going and see what’s going to happen.
One word keeps coming to mind for me to describe both the characters and the book itself, and that’s “eccentric”. If you’re a fan of Rotherweird, Gormenghast, or China Mieville, I think this will be a huge winner for you. I’m definitely intrigued to carry on, and I’ll let you know how it goes! Don’t forget to stop by the other blogs on the tour for more info, too!