March 3, 2011


by Matthew J. Kirby
391 pages, Scholastic Press

Review by S.F. Winser

Steampunk, as a genre, tends towards the bombastic. Giant machines, showy magic, corsets, explosions and smoke and fog. And that's hella fun. I refuse to complain about that in any way.

But it does leave room for someone to try a different approach.

'The Clockwork Three' is a delightful, well-balanced and restrained work that revolves around three children and their very real-world problems. It happens to be set in a New-York-analogue city in the late 1800s and has magic... possibly. It has clockwork machines which are (for the most part) entirely plausible. It has real-world historical tidbits (Kirby is an historian of early New York and uses this to a very atmospheric advantage) that weave through this fictional city and make it feel realer than many other authors’ attempts at rendering the actual New York.

The main characters are children with goals that are based on historical starting points. Freedom from indentured servitude, the stability of a poverty striken family, tracking down long-lost parents. Any magic here serves the plot; it doesn't in any way drive it. It's fantasy by stealth. Perhaps Magical Realism might be a better subgenre label, much as I hate that term. No one is trying to Save The World or Rescue The Princess or collect the Seven Plot Coupons of Power. This is a set of three children who are trying to make their lives not suck quite so badly and who end up needing to rely on each other to complete these goals. One of them is a clockmaker's apprentice, but it is the three children who work as three interlocked cogs to move the plot forward.

And as I said, the magic is elegantly restrained. I could list witches, golems, psychics, robots, enchanted fiddles, potions... all of these are in the book. Or, they aren't, if you choose not to see them. And when they appear, most of these elements are built into the background reality. It would be possible to interpret these books as containing absolutely no magic at all and make a convincing case for it. Yes the violin is special... but maybe it's just a very good violin that inspires a very good musician to musical heights. Is the robot a magical golem, or simply a very advanced, mobile Babbage machine? Is the psychic actually talking to the dead... or is she a convincing folk-psychologist with a good heart?

I received this book as a Christmas gift from my wife, striking terror into my heart. She likes to buy books that are within my range of preferred reading (YA fantasy in this case), but that I'd be unlikely to pick up myself in my headlong rush to keep up with the newest thing that might ensnare a reluctant teen library patron. This means that I often get books that... are not to my taste. (Let's leave it at that. There's a chance she might read this. I'd like live.) But sometimes they are unexpected corkers. I devoured 'The Clockwork Three'. Drowned in it. There are one or two points where the fineness is thinner, to state a point as subtly as possible (a couple of deus ex machina moments. Some of the later character interaction is a touch forced) but so much of it is so well done that I feel like a bore to point it out. Such are the risks of those who dare to review. Sometimes being honest makes you feel like a jerk and an unworthy one. This book is undeserving of me picking-nit. It's a wonderful read that I loved dearly.

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