The Clockwork Dagger – Beth Cato (review)

Publisher: HARPER Voyager

Publication year: 2014

Format: Paperback, 358 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-231384-3

Beth Cato - Clockwork Dagger Octavia Leander is a healer, orphaned as a child and taken in by Miss Percival, the headmistress of the Caskentian medicians academy. Now an adult, she has become a healer with incredible powers, far stronger than the other medicians – including Miss Percival herself – and in a land torn apart by war, those powers are in high demand. Embarking on her first mission to help a town riddled with illness in the far south, Octavia boards a run-down airship called the Argus.

What should be a routine journey soon becomes dangerous, with assassins making attempts on Octavia’s life and many of the passengers and crew falling ill under suspicious circumstances. On top of this, Octavia’s cabinmate hides a dangerous secret about her past, and one of the Argus‘s stewards – the charming and attractive Alonzo Garrett – is not merely a steward, but one of the Queen’s spies known as a Clockwork Dagger. Octavia soon discovers that powerful factions on both sides of the war have taken an interest in her healing abilities, and that even those she thought cared about her cannot be trusted.

The Clockwork Dagger is a fast-paced story set in a gloomy world that feels fresh and original, and the blend of steampunk, fantasy and intrigue works well. My only real criticism was that as the main character, Octavia felt slightly one-dimensional. Her naivete, while charming at first, did wear thin after a little while, and I felt that in some situations, she was too quick to forgive and trust other characters when they revealed dark secrets about themselves. In short, she felt a little too perfect. This might not bother some readers, but for me it just didn’t quite ring true. As a result I found it difficult to care about her romance with Alonzo too much, but since it was only a small part of the story anyway, it didn’t feel like a huge issue. Still, I hope that future books in the series help to flesh out the characters in more detail.

I found the magic system in the book interesting. Though Octavia has an unusually strong healing gift, much of her magic works through her praying to the Lady, a goddess of healing. In a world mostly based on technology and mechanical inventions, the use of magic based on faith and prayer was a nice contrast; even within Caskentia, there are those who firmly believe in science and ridicule the idea that magic and the Lady exist at all.

I hadn’t heard of Beth Cato before rummaging through the pile of review books at Nalini’s house, but the title of this one caught my eye; anything with “clockwork” in the title usually means steampunk, and though I’m relatively new to the genre, I have enjoyed most steampunk novels I’ve read so far. Cato has written poetry and short stories, but The Clockwork Dagger is her first novel, and I think it’s a more than worthy entry to the genre. Some aspects or plot twists were a little predictable, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable to read. I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel, The Clockwork Crown, which is next in my to-be-read pile.

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Dragon Shield – Charlie Fletcher (review)

One fine Geek Girl Day (where Dark Matter Zine editor Nalini and fellow review writer C. J. Dee gather to watch geeky TV shows and movies), I was rummaging through Nalini’s pile of books to be reviewed and came across Dragon Shield by Charlie Fletcher. Being a dragon-obsessed nut, I picked it up and, upon reading the phrase “murderous dragons” in the blurb, decided to take it home.

Charlie Fletcher - Dragon Shield

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books

Publication year: 2014

The first in a trilogy, Dragon Shield follows the adventures of Will and his younger sister Jo. While they’re at a London hospital to get Jo’s knee brace adjusted, time seems to stop, leaving everyone except Will and Jo frozen. Something malevolent is stirring in the British Museum all the city’s statues have come to life… and many of them are not friendly. Helped only by a few friendly statues, Will and Jo soon find themselves on the run from the aforementioned ‘murderous dragon’ statues as they try to figure out what evil is responsible for freezing London.

Dragon Shield is aimed at the middle school market (around 8-12 year-olds) gets into the action very quickly. As well as running for their lives to escape the foes pursuing them, Will and Jo also need to deal with the tension between them. Will resents Jo because of the time he’s had to spend going to the hospital with her over the last year, and because her injury slows them down, but at the same time he blames himself; Jo’s knee injury resulted from her jumping off a roof after Will dared her to because he had done it, even though he had only pretended to jump.  The guilt Will feels about causing his sister’s injury eats away at him and only causes him to resent her more, but with the dragons not letting up in their relentless pursuit, there’s little time for them to sort out their differences. The living statues with their quirky personalities round out a colourful cast of characters. I especially liked the soldier statues, some of whom were good humoured while others were stiff, bossy and formal.

While I enjoyed the story, it didn’t feel like a standout in the genre, and there were a few things that bothered me. One was that there were a large number of typographical errors, such as extra spaces and missing full stops. There were also some inconsistencies in capitalisation (eg. switching between “The Officer” and “the Officer” within the space of a few sentences). Admittedly these are relatively small gripes but it is unusual to find so many typographical errors in one book, and they do tend to jump out at me. I did, however, like the illustrations (which I believe were by Nick Tankard); the black and white pictures of the city of London with its strange statue inhabitants would no doubt appeal to younger readers as well.

This trilogy is apparently set in the same world as another trilogy by Fletcher: Stoneheart. Having not read any of the previous books, I can’t say what similarities or differences there are between the two series, but Dragon Shield appears to stand well enough on its own whether or not you have read the Stoneheart trilogy; if any of the characters were in the Stoneheart books, they were introduced well enough so that readers of Dragon Shield wouldn’t feel confused or lost.

Overall, if your child enjoys fantasy books, this one is worth a read. While not exactly ending on a cliff-hanger, Dragon Shield certainly leaves a lot of things unresolved, so I’ll probably check out the second book in the series, The London Pride, to see what happens next.

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Hell’s Bells – John Connolly (review)

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication year: 2011

Format: Paperback, ? pages

ISBN: 978-1-44-472496-7

John Connolly - Hells Bells

Hell’s Bells is the sequel to John Connolly’s first Samuel Johnson novel, The Gates. Set in the English town of Biddlecombe, the story picks up fifteen months after the events of the first novel, in which the demonic Mrs Abernathy’s invasion of Earth was was thwarted by 11-year-old Samuel Johnson, his dog, Boswell, and an un-demonic demon named Nurd.

Life in Biddlecombe is slowly returning to normal for Samuel and his friends. However, Mrs Abernathy has not forgotten her defeat at the hands of the boy and longs for revenge. When the scientists in Sweden turn on the Large Hadron Collider once more, it gives Mrs Abernathy the power she needs to drag Samuel into hell, so she can make him suffer before presenting him to the Great Malevolence in order to win back her place as his second-in-command. However, things don’t go to plan, and she finds herself contending with two police officers, four rowdy dwarves and Nurd’s loyalty to Samuel.

Hell’s Bells is aimed at young teenagers, with its easy-to-read, casual prose, though it would appeal to many adults as well. Some of the scenes and imagery created here are so utterly ridiculous (in a good way) that you can’t help but snort a bit with laughter when you read them. There are quite a few footnotes scattered throughout the book, amusing little asides on history, science or life in general. Some readers might find them annoying, as they can distract the reader from the flow of the story a little – indeed, I’ve seen them used poorly in other books – but I think they work well enough here, especially as they are often educational and quite funny. This is really the only complaint I had about the book, and that’s probably because footnotes remind me too much of academic papers, which are Evil.

The descriptions give you a real sense of how the world looks; particularly in hell, which has variety to its landscape as opposed to the typical “lots of pits full of fire” approach. The protagonists are likeable – I particularly enjoyed the close bond of friendship between Samuel and his dog – and even the evil characters have depth to their personalities.

And really, any story that includes a troupe of alcoholic dwarves can only be hilarious.

It looks like the series will continue, but (as far as I can tell), there’s no way of knowing when the next Samuel Johnson book will come out, or how many more there will be; Connolly’s next book, Charlie Parker mystery The Burning Soul, is due out in September, I believe.

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Hour of Need – Michael Pryor (review)

Publisher: Random House

Publication year: 2011

Format: Paperback, 448 pages

ISBN: 978-1-74-166310-5

Michael Pryor - Hour of Need

The sixth and final book in Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series, Hour of Need is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of the pre-World War 1 era of our own history, with added magic and steampunk technology. As each story in this series picks up from where the previous installment left off, it’s best to read these novels in order; it’s not like some other series where you can just jump in anywhere and know exactly what’s going on.

Hour of Need begins with Aubrey Fitzwilliam, the protagonist of the series, in hostile territory, spying on his enemy, Doctor Mordecai Tremaine, a powerful sorcerer bent on achieving immortality at the cost of thousands of innocent lives. After discovering just how terrifying Tremaine’s plans are, Aubrey and his friends embark on a perilous mission to stop him, which sees them confront – among other dangers – front-line trench warfare and an aerial dirigible battle.

There is something for everyone here; whether you enjoy political intrigue or spectacular magic, action-packed stories or just believable and complex character development, this is a book that will appeal to all ages. The characters and the relationships they develop over the course of the series are believable and feel real, so that you care about what happens to them, and the story races along at break-neck pace from start to finish. Add this to Michael Pryor’s way with snappy dialogue, obviously well-researched settings and finely-crafted prose and you have a thoroughly entertaining read.

Like the rest of the series, it’s one of those books you should not start reading just before you go to bed. You’ll say to yourself, “Just one chapter… I want to know what happens next, just one more…” and before you know it, it’s 6am, you’ve finished the book and you realise you have to get up soon to go to work or school and hope you can catch up on sleep while no one’s looking.

Finishing the book actually made me a little sad, knowing that there would be no more to come afterwards. However, Michael Pryor is now working on a new series, so it will be exciting to see what he serves up next. You can find out more about his books here.

(I was trying to decide what to use as a rating device, since stars are so boring. Then I looked at my dog, Rex, who was sleeping on his back with his paws in the air. Ergo…)

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