The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

The Clockwork Dagger presents an interesting dilemma: in a world built more upon a fantasy setting than an alternate universe Victorian Earth, in which faith in God is the antidote to technology that is used to maim and murder, is this really a steampunk story? In truth, the main statement made here (and there are many made in the book) is anti-steampunk: science/technology is dehumanizing rather than wondrous or fantastical and people need to find their faith/religion again or lose their souls. Ironically, the book needed more soul to really engage the reader since so many of the characters were poorly defined and the plot slow.

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Story: Octavia is an extremely skilled healer – she calls upon her God and the Lady in order to use magic to save patients. When the leader of the healers sends her on a mission to save a village suffering from an enemy-engineered plague, Octavia finds herself upon a steamship laden with characters – some wanting to harm her and others wanting to help. But as she is about to discover, she is far more valuable than she realized and the course of her life is about to change.

For me, I enjoy steampunk as a wonderous adventure – a reimagining of a time when the future was full of opportunities and the world left to explore. But that is a steampunk that is an alternate universe of the Fin De Siecle Victorian world. Since Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger is a fantastical creation, already the very important historical grounding of Steampunk is lost. It becomes more of an affectation than an integral part of the story. I truly felt that loss took away a lot of the enjoyment for me.

As well, the very heavy Catholic religion trappings (and the message that technology and science are evil tools of faithless men) were offputting. Others will likely appreciate the statements made about nature, God, technology gone wrong, futility of war, and senseless loss of human life. But I felt that a story with such specific religious trappings should definitely have been grounded in an AU Earth rather than fantasy. It would have given Cato’s messages more punch.

The story itself also failed to engage me. Octavia was a mix of passive and aggressive that I found frustrating to define. As well, nearly all the side characters had improbable hidden secrets – I found it hard to believe that every single person Octavia meets on her trip is hiding something major or pretending to be someone they aren’t. It didn’t help that their personalities were ill defined and lacking in depth. Most, including the bland love interest, felt more like over idealized caricatures rather than fully defined people. It took away from the very strong statements about religion and society that Cato was continually making throughout the story.

I greatly appreciate books with ideas and authors that don’t give in to easy answers or a simple straightforward plot. But in this case, I didn’t agree with the statements made throughout and never really got into any of the characters.  I wasn’t carried by the story so much as dragged along while being beaten over the head with statements about society and especially the need to find religion again. The romance aspect was especially tepid.

So although I never hated the book, I was never engaged, either. It is not poorly written and the author did an excellent job of reinventing history (e.g., ‘zymes’ and mechanical limbs) into a new fantasy setting. But there wasn’t enough in the story to encourage me to continue.

Reviewed from an ARC.

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