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The Doomsday Vault
by Steven Harper aka Steven Piziks
Roc Fantasy, $7.99, 381pp
Release Date: November 1, 2011

This steampunk novel is the first in a new series. In an England that is still sort of pre-industrial and certainly pre-social reforms, the up-and-coming technology is clockwork-driven. This England also has a plague problem – plague zombies – unfortunate souls who are dying of a debilitating condition that causes a great degree of sensitivity to the sun and an unfortunate tendency to attack healthy humans. But they are usually easy to avoid with some moderate care. The interesting thing about plague zombies is that once in a while when someone contracts the disease instead of being debilitated, they become something of a genius savant, although the disease usually drives them insane and still kills them eventually. They are called clockworkers.

Our heroine, Alice Michaels, has many troubles on her plate. At the ripe old age of twenty-one, Miss Michaels is yet unmarried with few prospects. Her family has an unfortunate history of plague, she and her Baron father are dirt-poor, and she has an unladylike passion for automatons. And she’s being stalked by a mysterious clockworker who keeps siccing zombies on her. So, when a well-to-do businessman takes an interest in courting her, it does seem like things are looking up – especially since her new fiancé appreciates and encourages her interest in automatons. But a series of events propel her unwillingly into an association with women and men who scorn societal conventions – the Third Ward. The women want the vote and some of them even – gasp – wear trousers. She is offered a job working with automatons and the chance to associate with the most attractive young flier who plays a mean fiddle. She met young Gavin in very strange circumstances having to do with inheriting her aunt’s home. Someone, possibly her own aunt, kidnapped Gavin and left him in a tower. To rescue him and escape, he and Alice had to negotiate some spectacularly nasty automated traps. This led Alice to the conclusion that her own aunt was a clockworker but introduced even more mysteries.

Alice wanted the job and excitement of working with the Third Ward and their mission to capture insane clockworkers and harness their genius for the benefit of England ; but the money wasn’t enough to care for her ailing father and satisfy all their debts. Her fiancé was willing to do all that in exchange for their first son inheriting her title. And she also craved the traditional lifestyle of husband, home and children and thought she’d be able to make it work until she discovered why her fiancé was willing to tolerate her passion for working with automatons. And to complicate it further, she found herself falling in love with Gavin, a most inappropriate match.

This was a moderately complex plot but the author did a pretty good job of keeping all the different threads together in a very enjoyable read. Alice has to figure out what she really wants from life and what she’s willing to sacrifice to get it. She also has to figure out who is the crazy clockworker that is stalking her and why. And, then, when she finally understands what happened to her aunt, it’s pretty much all up to her to decide if she’s going to ‘buck the system’ and do what’s right or play it safe.

The world-building was great! I could cringe at the nasty social and environmental conditions and yet marvel at what they were accomplishing technologically. The characters were not real deep but they were sufficient for the story. The author focused more on action than introspection. The Doomsday Vault of the title is where the Third Ward keeps the most dangerous inventions of clockworkers and I can already anticipate peeking into the vault in subsequent stories. (think Indiana Jones and gov’t warehouses…) The story didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger but there were plenty of unresolved issues which make the next story much anticipated. ~ Catherine Book

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