CBRIII Maneuver #14 – The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man
Profile: Steampunk, Speculative Fiction, Alternate History
Summary: Sir Roger Tichborne: Lost at sea. But now he’s back to claim his family’s fortune. Or is he? To the upper classes, he’s obviously a cunning swindler; to London’s laborers, he’s the people’s hero… while to Sir Richard Francis Burton, he’s the focus of a daring plot to gain possession of the legendary black diamonds known as the Eyes of Naga. Burton’s investigation takes him to the cursed Tichborne estate… and to an encounter with the ghost of a witch!
After Action Report:
Mark Hodder’s tales of Burton and Swinburne are some of the least focused but most entertaining steampunk novels out there. Book two of the series does little to improve on the formula of its predecessor, but the electricity is crackling away. The Clockwork Man is a messy, fundamentally flawed adventure, which nevertheless keeps you turning the pages until the very end. It is steampunk fluff, but if you can deal the lack of literary merit, its still a fun little romp through Hodder’s twisted past.
The meddling of Spring Heeled Jack has left Richard Burton’s world radically altered from its intended course. London is flooded with the ever stranger mad science of its Technologist cadre and the very fabric of society is beginning to chafe under the ministrations of the revolutionary Rakes. Burton, in his role as King’s Agent, has taken on the strangest mysteries of these strange times to defend King and Country.
Hodder’s second detective story is just as fragmented as his first novel. The story takes wild leaps, not only in subject matter, but in time and place as well. Unnecessary timeskips and flashbacks plague what should be a relatively straightforward adventure romp. Hodder takes advantage of the artificial leaps in time to showcase his bizarre vision of Victorian England, complete with giant millipede husks, fitted with steam engines taking the place of London’s iconic double-deckers (itself nothing but a lead in for a truly hideous pun on Volkswagen’s Beatle). Or the blight ravaged Ireland being turned into a man-eating jungle by overzealous eugenicists. And Hodder’s added a third force that’s radically reshaping history, the powers of mesmerism: fully realized psychic abilities.
And at the center of everything, a ret-conned piece of Deus ex Machina which is literally used to explain everything that happened in the first book and the second AND goes on to drive the plot of the forthcoming third book. This is probably the most annoying aspect of The Clockwork Man. The Eyes of Naga are easily the most egregious use of a plot device I’ve ever seen. These little pretties have unraveled the very fabric of time not once but three times (so far). Hodder unapologetically uses them as carte blanche to turn history on its head.
But that is what we came here to see, so I can’t fault him for his product, just his methods. The original mystery has the same problems as Spring Heeled Jack in having too many starting points and not enough endings. A new character, Herbert Spencer, is introduced, and does quite well for himself until the last two chapters when they turn him into another plot device. The clockwork man in questions is the definition of a fake MacGuffin, which deeply annoying because Hodder explicitly set up the plot device to be used on said MacGuffin in the first 30 pages.
The addition of mesmerism and psychic abilities makes a nice platform for the new story. The historical characters-as-villains theme that Hodder has created here is really fun. And the historical postscript is still interesting, although it does get a bit bogged down in some of the details. Again, the story evokes enough interest in the real life figures to prompt some outside research.
And it’s a page turner. It’s hard to recommend a book just based on its ability to get you to read it, but ultimately if all you want from a steampunk novel is some shiny gears and a plot involving zombies (zombfied nobility for extra hilarity) then The Clockwork Man is an excellent novel. I don’t hate it. I dislike that it works, but I don’t hate it.
As a final note, the cover my copy of The Clockwork Man was riddled with odd pixilation flaws of the text. The image itself was fine, but the title’s drop shadows and the beveling of the main font were both jagged and boxy. I’m curious if this is a common problem with Pyr books, as the extra price I paid for their pretty cover art seemed ill-spent on this poorly proofed product.