Here be Dragons

Synopsis:

Ondinium is a mountainous city-state whose physical strata mirror their caste system. At the bottom is Tertius, the seediest and the poorest part whose inhabitants are immigrants, workers, engineers and often criminals. In the middle is Secundus, where are situated the higher-end shops, markets, and the University. And at the top is Primus, land of the few – rich and privileged. The classes are separated into four groups: the administrative ruling class, called Exalteds, executive police caste (Lictors), labouring plebeians, and free-flying icarii who run messages between all three rings of society. Dru Pagliassotti draws clear lines between them – their functions in society, how they relate to each other, how trapped they are in their own castes. Each member of the groups have different tattoos or emblems to signify their place. Exalteds are the real aristocrats and rulers – they wear white ivory masks in public and usually keep themselves to themselves. All citizens are subject to the Great Engine, a steam-powered computerized machine that also determines one’s career, but that is counterbalanced by a human, Exalted-led Council. Even machines sometimes make mistakes.

Floating through and around this society are the icari, caste-less messengers who fly with wings made of ondinium, a super-buoyant metal. Taya Icarus is one such messenger, and one day on her way back from a job she saves two exalteds from a wireferry crash. As she investigates (unofficially), her path crosses that of the exalted Forlore brothers which couldn’t have differed more. The younger Alister is handsome and charming, a ladies’ man but also the youngest member of the Council and the greatest programmer of the engines that run the city. The oldest, Cristof, is skinny, rude and grouchy; he renounced his caste and lives as an unmasked clockwright in Tertius. Both brothers seem to fancy Taya in their own way but, as she is making her choice, she discovers that not all shiny stuff is gold and not all handsome men are worth a heartache…not to mention the fact that she can’t count on anything more than a short fling – not when the Exalteds are involved.

Titillating factor:

Just a few kisses nothing more – it is a YA novel after all. I approve. 🙂

What I liked:

I didn’t expect much but maybe just because of it was charmed.

First of all Ms. Pagliassotti lets the reader explore Ondinium without resorting to clumsy info-dumps. Undoubtedly, the world-building is the most impressive aspect of Clockwork Heart, and although one can recognize the possible sources scattered around fantasy literature (like Tolkien’s Gondor but also Plato’s Atlantis and ancient Rome), the author has made this world truly original.

Each immigrant group living in Ondinium has their own stereotypes and opinions about other groups, and appropriate relationships and tensions. There is also an underground group called the Torn Cards that hates the government – so-called for their calling card, torn programming cards, that they leave at the sites of their terrorist attacks. No vampires or werewolves on the horizon. No zombies either…

When it comes to characters Ms. Pagliassotti created a compelling, sympathetic heroine you can relate to. Although it is a YA novel the heroine never acts too stupid to live and the hero isn’t a cloying, insufferably noble jerk. Taya’s actions and inner deliberations are definitely more mature than you would expect. I found her a smart, capable, sensible woman who knows what she wants (so no, no ugly love triangle here either). The Forlore brothers are three-dimensional and fascinating. Without giving anything away, I wholeheartedly agreed with Taya’s eventual romantic choice. She proved she had brains and her heart was definitely in the right place.

What I didn’t like:

The plot dragged along for too many pages, especially at the end. It made me bored as the book became a bit too predictable right from the middle of the narration. It would be better if the main baddie was revealed later – as it is, the final showdown felt oddly overshadowed by the earlier, dramatic confrontation between Taya and the Forlore brothers. In other words the novel would have been better if it had been about 1/4th of its length shorter (but, as it is a debut let’s cut the author some slack).

Also the steampunk aspect…well, I read steampunk just because I love when these queerly complicated anachronistic machines become pretty much rightful characters of the story. Unfortunately here they were employed only as props. I don’t feel that the author intended to exploit the ethos, awe and science that characterizes the steampunk genre to the full, focusing too much on the romantic thread instead. That’s why I wouldn’t really consider this book pure steampunk, though it certainly contains those elements. It’s first and foremost romantic fantasy. As you might guess it wasn’t exactly up to my expectations.

Final verdict:
This was a pleasant mix of romance, mystery and steampunk but it lacked real scientific passion and a better pacing of narration. It was fun and easy to read though – perfect for a lazy summer day.

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