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The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato

The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato
Book Name: The Clockwork Dagger
Author: Beth Cato
Publisher(s): Harper Voyager
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Steampunk
Release Date: September 16, 2014 (US) October 23, 2014 (UK)

I think it can safely be assumed that healers have a certain reputation in fantasy works: they’re good for saving people’s lives but not much else. If someone in a group needs to play the part of a damsel in distress, a healer is the easiest one to fill that role. After all, healers are traditionally pacifists and noncombatants, meaning the best they can do is sit around and wait to be rescued. (And rescued they will be, since any group going into danger could probably use a healer of some sort.) Needless to say, most of these traits also apply to women in fantasy works.

Octavia Leander is neither a traditional healer nor a traditional woman, and that makes her seem all the more realistic. While her first impulse is always to heal, she isn’t a fragile flower who shies away from violence and allows others to tell her what must be done. She is perfectly capable of taking charge, especially in situations where someone with medical expertise is needed, and quite willing to defend herself, whether verbally or physically (and equally adept at both).

The world in which she lives is also not a traditional steampunk world. It has shades of Victorian-era England, but only just enough that it can be reliably called steampunk. There are airships, of course (what would steampunk be without those?) and women dressed in corsets and full skirts. There are also gremlins, man-made flying creatures with a taste for silver, and political intrigue between warring countries, one of which blames the other for a curse which blighted their land.

Octavia lives in Caskentia, which has been ruled by Queen Evandia since the royal family was killed, even though there are rumors that the princess survived. For decades, Caskentia has been at war with the Waste, which blames the kingdom for a curse that has been allegedly laid on their land, making them nearly incapable of raising food for themselves. The war has caused destruction in both lands and is the reason Octavia was orphaned at a young age. The village she lived in was burned when a one-man aircraft crashed into a hydrogen powered airship, and she only escaped by being out of the house at the time. Since then, she has been training under Miss Percival to become a medician.

As you can tell, once you get past the very basics of the world, Caskentia quickly becomes a new world to explore, with rich details that make this novel one of the most fascinating fantasy novels I’ve read recently. The politics of the war are interesting, but they form the backdrop of the novel for the most part, not coming into the forefront until later in the book.

The other part of the backdrop, which likewise slips in and out between being in the background and influencing the plot, concerns the dichotomy between science and magic. In any steampunk world, science plays a large part, even if only as set dressing for a flashy plot, and at first it seems as though that’s what science will be in this book. After all, Octavia travels by airship, there are single-pilot ships known as buzzers, and gremlins are not only little troublemakers (or, in the style of The Twilight Zone, very large troublemakers) but little troublemakers who have been created by people, no doubt in some mad scientist’s lab.

However, unlike other steampunk novels I’ve read, magic plays a very large role in the world. A medician is not this world’s version of a doctor; they are people who can call upon the Lady, a grieving mother who was transformed into a tree and now grants certain individuals the ability to call upon her and ask her to help them heal others. It isn’t entirely clear how much of the story is true and how much is just superstition, but what is clear is that the magic works. Octavia is able to heal people through prayer and herbs, and even more than that, she’s one of the most skilled medicians Caskentia has seen. What might take others hours takes her only a few minutes.

This, as it turns out, would make her a very valuable asset to both sides of the war, and as she travels, she learns that she can’t always be sure who to trust. Betrayals and secret identities make it hard for even the reader to tell who can and can’t be trusted, leading to a tense and thrilling story.

The other characters in the book are just as delightful to read about as Octavia is. Viola Stout, the woman sharing a cabin with her on the airship, is quite possibly my favorite fictional middle-aged woman (for reasons aside from the fact that she both reads and writes Caskentia’s version of guilty pleasure novels, though I can’t get into the greatest reason for fear of spoilers). Alonzo Garret, a Tamaranian serving on the airship, has the slightly generic feel of a love interest (which he is) but enough of a backstory to give him a proper character. Even the tertiary characters, like Mr. Drury, who peddles Royal-Tea, is well-written, and he in particular struck close to home, as he might to any woman: he’s the sort of man who sets you on edge despite being perfectly polite, and it feels remarkably good whenever Octavia gives him a piece of her mind.

Steampunk may be something of a niche genre in the fantasy realm, belonging supposedly to those who are fanatics about all things Victorian but wish there could have been a bit more technology. Even if there is some truth to the idea that steampunk fans are a bit odd, it’s worth braving even the strangest parts of this genre for books like this one.


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