Back in April, I reviewed 'Guardian Angels & Other Monsters' by Daniel H. Wilson, a collection of his shorter fiction, and I can't say that I was a big fan. I did thoroughly enjoy a handful of stories, though, and one of them in particular felt notably inviting. It was called 'One for Sorrow' and its subtitle of 'A Clockwork Dynasty Story' hinted that it was part of something bigger. Now that I've read 'The Clockwork Dynasty', a novel published one year earlier in 2017, I know how and why.
'One for Sorrow' turns out to represent a moment in between scenes in 'The Clockwork Dynasty'. It could have been a section that was cut because its tone is completely different to the rest of the novel. The short story is an elegaic piece of gothic fantasy that hints at much but tells little outside of this wider context, but it was lyrically written and full of inviting atmosphere and I'm very happy that I followed up on it because I got a real kick out of this novel, even if it plays very differently indeed.
For once, the elevator pitch style blurb on the cover is absolutely spot on. Ernest Cline suggests 'some fantastic hybrid of 'Highlander' and 'The Terminator'' and that's a great way to look at it. The lead characters are tough to describe because they're other. They're not human but they're certainly not inhuman. They're clockwork but the animae that power them are age old technology from a race that's been gone so long that even their creations do not remember them. They're 'avtomat', a race of mechanical beings who live hidden amongst us.
We're initially introduced to two of them, apparently a brother and sister, Peter and Elena, who are brought into life by an Italian craftsman working for the Tsar of Russia, Peter the Great. We follow their stories, plural, for they're not always the same (they diverge before 'One for Sorrow' and reconnect after it), from their 'births' in Moscow in 1709 through to the present day, where they intersect with that of a human woman, June Stefanov, who seeks out ancient tech for a faceless Chinese company. The chapters alternate between a narrative going on today, in which June finds herself caught up in an avtomat war, and the past, in which we learn the background we need to understand the why of it all.
I liked every part of this. I liked the fact that we have a female lead, an intellectual who isn't afraid to be tough when the moment calls for it, though she's hardly an action hero and, being human, she's outmatched physically by every avtomat she meets. I liked her wild introduction to a secret world that dates back millennia, history to which mankind has generally not been privy. I liked that this secret history unfolds on its own terms and that it isn't a well documented thing even to those who live within it. I liked that the avtomat, both as a species and, in the case of Peter and Elena, individually, don't know where they came from; they learn along with us. I liked all the history, which is neither overdone nor sugarcoated. I really liked the ancient technology. And I liked that it all sweeps along at a rate of knots. It's not 'Highlander' and it's not 'The Terminator' but it combines a lot of the best of each and still comes out its own creature.
In fact, my biggest and only real complaint is that it ends, relatively quickly, after three hundred or so pages. I'd argue that most of those pages serve as building material, growing Peter and Elena and the avtomat species as a whole, and I had every expectation three quarters of the way in that this would be the first volume in a trilogy. I was rather surprised when Wilson apparently ditched that approach and suddenly shoehorned his characters into a boss battle finale. I was so invested in this mythology that I wanted a lot more of it. That still feels weird, as I usually find myself wondering why trilogies weren't wrapped up in one book rather than the other way around.
Some might argue that the clockwork characters are more deeply crafted, if that's an appropriate phrase to use in talking about clockwork characters, and they'd be right. After all, Wilson has a PhD in robotics so it's not much of a surprise to find that he's apparently more interested in his artificial characters than his human ones. What I can't be sure about is whether this is a flaw or not. I called June the female lead earlier, because that's how she's suggested, the alternating chapters casting her as equivalent in rank to Peter and Elena. In truth, though, she's a human link to a non-human story so that we can feel a little more comfortable with and connected to it. Really, Peter's the hero and another avtomat I won't name (no, it's not Elena) is the villain. June, if we examine her role carefully, is the unlikely sidekick. And, frankly, I'm fine with that, though you may or may not be.
While I do wish this had been longer, with much more time given to growing the avtomat race, comparing it to our ownculturally, socially and technologicallyand especially watching it war within itself in secret, ever closer to inadvertently outing itself to us, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
I went back to 'Guardian Angels' and re-read 'One for Sorrow', finding it just as evocative as when I read it without context but with more meaning this time around. I wonder if that points the way to how Wilson will explore his fantastic creation in the future, by fleshing it out with short stories here and there. He's built in so much opportunity for that.
He could do more of what 'One for Sorrow' did, adding little nuances where he feels the need to explain why one character went this way while we weren't paying attention. He could gradually fill in the many gaps that don't progress the bigger story, as Peter or Batuo or other avtomat explore our world from behind their masks, gradually finessing how they're held to their Word, the different purpose that each of them has deep down inside. Given that Peter and Elena are ages old and most of that time is forgotten to them, maybe he could explore the surely rich histories that are hidden even to themselves. And there's the whole elder race angle, the people who came before us but apparently left, their unexplained legacy still with us, albeit hidden from sight.
Even if this is a standalone novel, it could still serve as a beginning to something much more substantial. And I hope it does. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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