Tag Archives: steampunk

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Clockwork Three’


I have owned this book for years. Such is the length of my TBR list that I have only just managed to get to it. I’ve been admiring its beautiful cover for a long time – behold:

Image: booksmugglers.com

Image: booksmugglers.com

and I was really expecting big things of it. A homeless orphan? A maid with a painful family reality? A talented young apprentice clockmaker with an amazing gift? Tick, tick and tick.

The proof of a story is in the reading, though, and I have to admit that I struggled with ‘The Clockwork Three.’

The book is 483 pages, in my edition; a book of that length would normally take me maybe two days to get through. A book like ‘The Clockwork Three,’ which is exactly the sort of story I usually love, should mean that I never leave it down – in which case, I might even be able to get through it a bit quicker than expected. But therein lies the main problem with this book: it is way, way too long. It’s so long that I can barely imagine any child from its target audience having the patience (or strength) to stick with it, but – worse than that – it is long for no reason, narrative or otherwise. It could easily have a hundred pages lopped right out of it, and never even notice.

The story introduces us to Giuseppe, an eleven-year-old orphan who was sold by an unscrupulous uncle in his native Italy and shipped off to the New World. His ‘buyer’ was Stephano, a ‘padrone’ to a group of bedraggled young boys who work for him as buskers on the street corners of an unnamed, possibly fictional North American city in the late nineteenth century. One day, Giuseppe finds a green violin floating in the bay, and claims it for his own.

We also meet thirteen-year-old Frederick, apprentice clockmaker to the kind and paternal Master Branch. As a younger child, Frederick lived in the orphanage of the savage Mrs Treeless, from whence his freedom was purchased by Master Branch. Branch understands Frederick’s talents with machinery and wishes to help the boy reach the level of journeyman, and eventually master craftsman, in order to set up his own business. Frederick is also searching for his mother, and attempting to come to terms with his brutal past, as well as working toward his qualifications.

And then there’s Hannah, a maid in a hotel owned by the enigmatic Mister Twine. She works under the cruel Miss Wool (is anyone else getting irritated by the character names? No? Just me? All right then), and her father – once the finest stonemason in the city – lies at home helpless after suffering a stroke. Her family depends entirely on Hannah to survive.

So. Hannah needs money to help her father (after taking a silly risk which she knows will cost her the job she so desperately needs to hold on to); Giuseppe wants to earn the money to send himself back to Italy. Frederick is trying to build a clockwork man for his journeyman project, and discover what happened to his mother, and why she left him with a woman as cruel as the orphanage keeper, Mrs Treeless. Hannah uncovers the fact that a long-dead guest in the hotel she works for apparently left a large treasure there, which Miss Wool and Mister Twine have spent years looking for, and Giuseppe knows where there is a clockwork head exactly like the one Frederick is trying to build. These three hapless children eventually meet, realise that their plights intersect, and resolve to help one another. All the backstory and setting up takes about 300 pages to accomplish, and then the real adventure kicks off.

There are some great bits in this book. The clockwork man – which, through some strange mixture of chance, magic, science and alchemy – eventually begins to work, is wonderful, and woefully underused. The descriptions of Hannah’s family, and her father’s broken health and once-marvellous talent, was moving. The story about Stephano (the padrone), and the way he mistreats the boys under his care is fascinating, because it’s based on reality. I would have liked the whole book to be about that, to be truthful. Considering the book is named ‘The Clockwork Three’, clockwork plays a very minor role – it would have been better off titled ‘The Green Violin,’ in my estimation.

The book is let down by the enormous length – the enormous and needless length, I’d say – the labouring of points, the ‘slapping the reader around the head’ exposition, and the irritating ending. The secret of the treasure in the hotel made no sense. The character of Mister Twine seemed to change as the story went on. Madame Pomeroy, a rich guest in the hotel, speaks about ‘her enemies’, but they never make an appearance. Miss Wool and Mrs Treeless could have been the same character. Pullman the park ranger was pulled out when he was needed; same with Alice, the gardener/apothecary. Then, there’s the fact that I was confused by the ages of the characters; they are eleven, twelve and thirteen, the oldest being Frederick and the youngest Giuseppe, but they act and talk and think like older teenagers. The hint of romance between two of them adds a strange note to a children’s book, too. I know we’re talking about children in an earlier age, where they all had jobs and heavy responsibilities, but even still.

But the most annoying thing about this book was the fact that adults are so important in it. Surely the first rule of a children’s book is: get rid of the grownups, and let the children run the show? There is a huge reliance on adult intervention to bring this book to a conclusion, and that was a major problem for me. It’s certainly a well-written book; the author knows his way around a sentence. He uses beautiful language, and there are some well observed moments. I particularly enjoyed his use of dialogue. Having said all this, I struggled to finish the book, and I can’t imagine ever picking it up to re-read.

Funnily enough, it has picked up a huge stack of 4- and 5-star reviews on Goodreads, and seems to have done very well with other readers, so I am (perhaps) being too hard on ‘The Clockwork Three.’ Have you read it? Care to show me where I’m going wrong?

Some cool-looking automata, just because. Image: h6.dion.ne.jp

Some cool-looking automata, just because.
Image: h6.dion.ne.jp


Book Review Saturday – ‘Goblin Secrets’

This week’s book review is, as they say, ‘a rum ‘un’. This week I want to tell you about a book that surprised and intrigued me, which was beautifully written and had some marvellous concepts in it, but which ultimately left me cold. In short, I don’t know what to make of it.

Firstly I should say it’s a book I bought, without question, because of its cover. Not only is is pretty – here, look:

Image: serendipityreviews.com

Image: serendipityreviews.co.uk

but the back cover blurb made me desperate to read it. I saw a mention of a little boy being raised by a chicken-legged witch, and that was me sold straight away. To compound my sense that this book was exceptionally good, it was the winner of last year’s US National Book Award, and it was also described as “Subtle, tricky, funny [and] beautiful” by no less a luminary than Ursula K. LeGuin.

(It was the Ursula LeGuin thing that got me, really. But come on – LeGuin! That has to be good, right? Well…)

Perhaps it was because I expected so much of this slim little book, and perhaps it was because it had received so much praise from people who really know their literature, that even now, a couple of weeks after I finished it, I’m still feeling the sting of disappointment. There are lots of things to admire in ‘Goblin Secrets’, not least of which is William Alexander’s facility with language – he can write, and he can write well. His sentences are poetic and rhythmical, his images are arresting, and I loved the way he divided up the book into scenes and acts, instead of chapters. I loved the touches of steampunk in here – the automata, the mechanical legs that Graba uses – and I loved, too, the hints at deeper themes we find in the way Alexander portrays the goblins. They were once human, but have ‘Changed’; they are not technically citizens of Zombay, the city in which the book is set (despite living there), so they are not given the same rights and privileges as the unChanged (i.e. humans), and eke out a lesser existence. There’s a lot packed into this in relation to social class and racism, and the horror of prejudice – but it’s never unpacked. We’re never told how or why they Change, for instance, which I thought was a big omission. There is a Northside (clean and ordered) and a Southside (disordered and underprivileged) to Zombay, and a bridge across its vast river which is a ‘neutral ground’ between the two halves of the city. All these ideas are great, but you might have noticed me using the words ‘hints’ and ‘touches’ above – all we ever get are hints and touches in this infuriatingly underdeveloped book.

The story is based around the theatre, taking as its premise the idea that acting and performing are illegal in Zombay, where Rownie, an orphan, lives under the ‘guardianship’ of a witch named Graba. A very clear mix between the Baba Yaga of Russian folklore and the self-interested survivor Fagin from Dicken’s ‘Oliver Twist’, Graba uses, rather than protects, the orphans who live under her charge. One day, a troupe of goblin actors (who are not governed by the same laws as the unChanged humans, and so do not have to abide by the ban on acting) announces they are putting on a play – so, of course, Rownie attends, and of course he ends up becoming absorbed into the troupe. This is not only because of Rownie’s own fascination with the outlawed art of acting, but because he hopes the goblin troupe will help him find his missing brother Rowan, who also had an interest in the theatre. Masks, in the world of Zombay, have a strange power – at times, they become ‘alive’, imbuing their wearer with some of that power and infusing them with whatever emotion the mask depicts – and this is one of the reasons why performance is dangerous and outlawed. Rownie, and Rowan before him, have some sort of affinity with the masks, and Rowan seems to possess an indistinct and undefinable power over the river which runs through Zombay.

So. We have a boy searching for his brother. We have mystery surrounding the theatre and its power. We have cool ideas such as animal hearts being used as a source of fuel for the mechanical ‘people’ who live in Zombay (why wasn’t more made of this?!). We have the possibility of great characters in figures like Graba. But the book is like a fledgling bird who just isn’t brave enough to take the big bad jump into the brave new world. It has so much potential to be fantastic, but it never lives up to its own promise. I can’t tell you how often I stopped, confused, while reading this book and flipped back a few pages to check whether I’d skipped or missed something, or misunderstood a vital plot point. I hadn’t. It was just that stuff wasn’t explained properly, and wasn’t elaborated upon in enough detail. I know you’re not supposed to be overly wordy, and brevity is king (particularly in books for the 8+ age group), but it shouldn’t be at the expense of plot, or characterisation.

Speaking of characterisation – that’s a problem here, too. I never got a sense of who Rownie was, and I particularly never got a handle on Rowan. Some of the goblin characters could have been interesting, but we never got a chance to really meet them. I don’t know about you, but if I can’t get a feel for the protagonist of a book, I find it hard to warm to the book. I couldn’t get a feel for Rownie.

I was also completely blindsided (not in a good way) by the plot, which seemed, to me, to change direction without warning at the end of the book. Not a lot happens besides Rownie spending time with the goblins for ages, and then in the last few pages, suddenly the whole world of Zombay is under threat and only the boys can save it, etc. Perhaps I missed something – perhaps my attention wandered and I lost some of the plot. But perhaps I didn’t.

The author, William Alexander, wearing a mask like the ones in 'Goblin Secrets' Image: beyondthepalebooks.net

The author, William Alexander, wearing a mask like the ones in ‘Goblin Secrets’
Image: beyondthepalebooks.net

So, in short, ‘Goblin Secrets’ is a beautifully written book (and its author seems to be a wonderfully nice man, too, if his blog is anything to go by), but I just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more than it is. If anyone who has read the book would care to comment and let me know what they thought, I’d be delighted. Maybe some of the questions left unanswered in this book are due to the fact that ‘Goblin Secrets’ is the first book in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be coming back for another helping of Zombay life, so I shall – alas – never know.

It feels weird to be in disagreement with Ursula LeGuin, you know. I’m not sure I like it, but there you have it. I hope someone can tell me what I missed about this book, or whether it’s worth giving it another go.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Image: carlsbadca.gov

Image: carlsbadca.gov