I’ve never read a T Kingfisher book I didn’t like, so I knew the Clocktaur War books would be good – but I was still surprised at just how good!
Books: Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine by T Kingfisher
Publication date: 21st November 2017 and 27th February 2018 respectively.
Ownership: I purchased the ebook of Clockwork Boys myself and the paperback of The Wonder Engine was a gift from my husband. All opinions are my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, death, and murder; torture and imprisonment; body horror/fantasy horror; gore.
A paladin, an assassin, a forger, and a scholar ride out of town. It’s not the start of a joke, but rather an espionage mission with deadly serious stakes. T. Kingfisher’s new novel begins the tale of a murderous band of criminals (and a scholar), thrown together in an attempt to unravel the secret of the Clockwork Boys, mechanical soldiers from a neighboring kingdom that promise ruin to the Dowager’s city.
If they succeed, rewards and pardons await, but that requires a long journey through enemy territory, directly into the capital. It also requires them to refrain from killing each other along the way! At turns darkly comic and touching, Clockwork Boys puts together a broken group of people trying to make the most of the rest of their lives as they drive forward on their suicide mission.
The first thing I’ll say about the Clocktaur War is that I personally feel like it’s a single story split over two volumes, rather than a true duology. The first book, Clockwork Boys, ends with only a small climax, and without the main plot coming to a close, and the second, The Wonder Engine, opens moments later and continues, rather than builds on, the character arcs and relationships. Both together are still under 600 pages, so really it’s one long novel – make sure that you have book two on hand when you’re about to finish book one! As such, I’ll be reviewing this as one single story, though the image and blurb above are from the first book.
So, what’s in that story? Well, giant semi-mechanical creatures known as Clockwork Boys are rampaging across the land, leaving trails of destruction. Someone has to find out what they are and how to stop them, and when you’ve already exhausted your actual heroes, who better for a suicide mission than a bunch of renegades with no choice in the matter? Our main character is accomplished forger and criminal accountant Slate. At thirty, and used to staying out of the action, she’s not the kind of woman who makes an obvious fantasy hero, but her quick mind and experience of flying under the radar – not to mention, her only-partly-useful magic allergies – make her the leader of a rag tag crew that includes Brenner, a grumpy career assassin (and Slate’s ex), Learned Edmund, a young scholar-monk whose religion tells him women are anathema, and Caliban, a former paladin who, possessed by a demon during a botched exorcism, is in prison for a truly horrifying mass murder. They are… not a likeable bunch, on paper, and yet such is Kingfisher’s skill with characters that over the course of the two books, I completely fell in love with them. Each and every member of the group is a complex, flawed, and believable person – and of course, it’s their interactions which make the book sing.
If you’ve read any of T Kingfisher’s work before, you’ll know that she has an amazing knack of pulling threads of humour out of even the darkest situations, and I laughed out loud on so many occasions while reading this book (once or twice through tears). The dialogue is so witty, and while I think the term ‘banter’ is often overused when describing books, there’s a zing to the conversations that probably does merit it – each of the voices is so strong that it feels like hanging out with a bunch of friends you know well, except they’re all masters of the pithy putdown. Much of the first book is a road trip, so the four main characters are alone with each other (and the horrors of the countryside), so it has that classic learning-to-get-along feel; by the second book, the action really kicks off, and the tone gets a little darker – to tell you exactly how would be far too spoilery! But even in the darkest moments, there’s a humour to the writing, and a heart to the characters, that keeps this feeling weirdly wholesome through torture, magical battles, and body horror.
There’s also a satisfying amount of romance – I wouldn’t quite say this is a capital letters Fantasy Romance compared to say, the author’s Swordheart, which is set in the same world but has a direct romance focus, but the budding relationship between Slate and Caliban is absolutely an important part of the book. I really loved these two prickly characters learning to allow someone else past their defences – it’s not easy, especially with the even more prickly Brenner lurking on the sidelines, but if you have a soft spot for an angsty fallen knight type or a practical, self-sufficient heroine, you’re in good hands. Personally, I love the way Kingfisher writes romance, with that wry humour and intricate characterisation – there were so many moments in this book where I wanted to bash their heads together and tell them to get over themselves, but I always understood where they were coming from! The romance never overshadows the actual plot, but it’s a very enjoyable complication to it.
If you’re looking for somewhere to start with T Kingfisher’s fantasy, this would be the perfect place – you get great examples of her horror-infused magic, witty romance, great characters, and that uniquely strange balance of darkness and cosiness. The only thing I don’t like about it is that it’s two books rather than one, but if you can get your hands on both, I highly recommend doing so. It’s a hell of a ride. Five out of five cats!