Maria's Reviews > Clockwork Heart

Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti
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's review
Apr 27, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: steampunk, romance, ya-steampunk
Recommended to Maria by: Suzanne Lazear
Read from April 22 to 26, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

A Clockwork Heart takes place on a different world, one in which there are massive city-states and competing political systems that keep citizens very aware of complex loyalties and the possibility of conflict. Of the city states introduced Ondinium is the most stable and secure: After nearly being destroyed by war two centuries prior, the rulers of Ondinium have created a vast difference machine, known as the Great Engine, to regulate the running of the city and the choices that are made with regards to policy. Ondinium is a society with a “caste system and strict, sometimes ruthless laws”: the exalteds reign at the top as the ruling class and live at the top of Ondinium Mountain in an area called Primus; further down on the mountain the Cardinal caste, or the middle class, live in Secundus; the famulate caste, or the working class, live at the base of the mountain in the smog and smoke of the industrial sector (64). A fourth social class, the Icarii, are winged messengers who can move freely between all three levels of society; they have great freedom and a special status, but in many ways have to be extremely careful about navigating the political structure. This city state is managed by a council of Decaturs, or senators, who create policy and form the body politic—there is no vote from the public. Although this society might seem oppressive, and there are factions who protest the strict controls dictated by this government, Ondinium is “envied [for its] material wealth and rich culture; its high rates of education and employment and low rates of poverty” (65).

The story begins with Taya, an Icarus who is delivering a message when a wireferry car overhead suffers a catastrophic failure. On board are exalted Viera Octavus and her four year-old son Ariq, and Taya must scramble to save the mother and child. Because she flies using wings made from metal that is lighter than air, Taya can rescue one at a time, but she has to move quickly. Rescue attempts are further impeded by the elaborate robes and mask that Viera is required to wear as a member of her caste. Taya employs every skill she has learned in her years of flying and, with a little help from a fellow icarii, is able to pull off an incredible rescue. Afterwards, however, questions remain: Was the accident, involving the wife of a Decatur, truly an accident, or the product of something more sinister?

The following day Taya delivers a message to Decatur Alister on Primus; Alister is talking to an individual Taya mistakes for a workman until she sees his face and realizes that the workman has the facial markings of the exalted class. Exalteds must wear robes that cover the entire body and prevent the showing of any skin, as well as porcelain masks while in public. Further, their masks prevent them from being able to speak, so they must be spoken for by their servants. Taya is shocked to discover that the clockwright is Alister’s older brother Cristof, who has chosen to cast off the trappings and live apart from his caste on in Tertius because he resents the restrictions imposed on exalteds. He is troubled by how there are “lower-castes who think exalteds aren’t human,” are “hiding some kind of grotesque deformity” behind the masks and robes,” and believe the elite class are “spirits or demons” (165). It immediately it becomes clear that the brothers are opposites in many ways: where Cristof is abrupt, cold, and more interested in his machines than people, Alister is the handsome charmer who can talk anyone into anything. Taya is charmed into telling the story of her rescue of Viera and Ariq the day before and learns that the brothers are Viera’s cousins; both immediately pledge to get to the bottom of what has occurred.

But nothing is as it seems in this world: There are spies for other city states, political unrest within Ondinium, and members of the governing council who are attempting to accomplish personal political goals, and it leads to a web of violence and deceit that results in an accident that takes the life of Viera’s husband Caster. It is now up to Taya to navigate the lies and intrigue that surround this event to figure out who is friend or foe, find justice for her friend Viera, and protect Ondinium from further harm.

I was intrigued by the blending of world cultures within the book: The caste system and reincarnation from India, the robes and masks from China, the walled city that requires special papers or identification to move from one level to the next from medieval Europe. The discussion on reincarnation added a spiritual feel to the text that could have been more strongly explored, especially because the ability to be reborn—or lack thereof—informs the legal system within the city state and how these characters interact with each other. Further, there is a cult of Goddess worship at the heart of this story, and she is often invoked and referred to. While I’m not sure how this aspect could have been more thoroughly explored, it adds a feeling of realism and authenticity to the world that Pagliasotti has created.

One of the greatest criticisms I have heard with regards to this book is that the second half is untidy and could have been done better. On this point I must reluctantly agree. The villain is ambiguous, and remains so through the end of the story, and the mystery within a mystery that drives the narrative is unnecessary. This could have been handled better, especially because the competing storylines seemed to leech energy from each other. Further, the villain commits reprehensible acts and much of the anger and disappointment I should have felt is reduced because the narrative doesn’t allow time for reflection and interpretation. Despite this, I still enjoyed the narrative as a whole, and I don’t feel that this is an issue that interfered with my ability to enjoy this book.

Another criticism I have with the book has to do with the Great Engine that runs the city; just what, exactly, does it do? The best description I could find states that the Great Engine is responsible for making “the most civilized nation in the world”: Every citizen is tested at a young age and “matched to a job well-suited to his personality and skills”; the industry on Tertius is “fast, safe, and efficient”; the merchant society on Secondus can “calculate resource supply and demand and make reasonable predictions to avoid shortages and avoid excesses” (141). I understand the idea of a computer and nowhere, in any part of my knowledge involving how they work, do I see a need for massive oiled gears and steam energy to make them work. I’m not saying that I needed a whole lot of explanation, I just want some idea of how a huge engine translates into a computational device.

Overall, I found Clockwork Heart to be an enjoyable read; there was plenty of action and the story had a certain innocence about it that made it easy to stay interested and keep reading. I would rate this book for ages 10 and up: There is romance, but it is gently developed, and Taya’s character is a professional woman who is proud of her career and ambitious. I would certainly have no problem with putting this book in a classroom library or recommending it a friend who is looking for science fiction/urban fantasy/.steampunk/.clock punk literature.
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Reading Progress

04/24/2011 page 109
28.0% "This is a fantastic read and I'm only reluctantly putting it down because I really do have to get some sleep!"
04/25/2011 page 225
58.0% "I'm still not sure what to think about this book yet, but I've enjoyed reading the story so far!"
04/25/2011 page 300
77.0% ""I built in caste as a selection parameter. After all, the idea is to strengthen desirable caste traits, not dilute them. Consider it social engineering. A rationl, civilized world is a blessing to everyone. The Lady gave us intelligence so that we can improve ourselves and work toward the perfect final rebirth.""

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