Sunday, 11 September 2016

Clockwork Lives by Kevin Anderson

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Based on a Rush concept album, huh? Second book in the series? There's actually quite a lot to like here, and the central conceit is interesting enough, but it suffers by never quite bringing the disparate threads together to become a cohesive whole. Also from having a main character who is initially so single-mindedly conformist as to be cartoony.

In other words, this is just okay.

Part of my difficulty may be that this is the second book in the series - perhaps some of what felt like gaping holes were actually addressed in an earlier book. But even if books build on their predecessors, they should not feel like there is at least a third of the book missing.

Marinda Peake is the daughter of an inventor who was exiled to a small town by the Watchmaker, the man who conquered the land with regularity, and keeps it all ticking. When her father dies, she not only doesn't expect her life to change, she actively believes that change cannot possibly happen to her. This is not portrayed well. I can see someone not having thought their life would change being shocked, even a bit resistant. But it doesn't ring true the way it is portrayed here. It's a heavy hand of an author keeping her in place, not something that feels like it wells up from a completely realized character.

Her father leaves her a book that transforms a drop of blood into someone's life story on the page that Marinda must fill before she can move back into her house. Furious, she sets out, finding out that most people's stories are extremely boring. (That's sort of an unfortunate choice, but otherwise she wouldn't journey, I suppose.)

The problem comes when you start to expect all these disparate stories to eventually weave together to describe a greater whole. I might have had trouble keeping all the stories straight in Catherynne Valente's Orphan's Tales, but in the end, they all did weave together into a very satisfactory whole, allowing lovely moments of pleasure as stories started to click into place and the relationships between them became apparent.

You could also take the conscious tack of deciding that stories are just sometimes arbitrary and don't interact, but you'd have to be aware of it, and weave that theme into the story you're telling.

Neither happens here. At first, it seems like Marinda is on the track of her mother, who ran off from her father in search of adventure. The first person whose story she gets after she leaves was the man her mother ran off with, and I expected this thread of discovering different facets of her mother's life and personality to keep coming to light.

Nope. In his tale, you find out she was more or less addicted to danger and died. Even after that, I was hoping another story would come around to her, that her death wouldn't have been real, and Marinda would find more than that fairly flat portrait, but nope. Never comes up again.

Okay, fine. The next few stories each have a central or tangential aspect of what the Watchmaker most craves, and disturbing hints of how he's tried to obtain it. What he thinks life should be like. With that, and given that Marinda meets the Anarchist, wo is a terrorist opposing The Watchmaker, it feels like maybe this is the point of the book. Marinda will come to understand that the Watchmaker's plan is really not that great a one, and to be perfectly fitting, at the end, she'll get the Anarchist's story to pull it all together and launch her on the next adventure after the book is full. Maybe the Anarchist will even be her mother, or someone who knew her mother. Would make sense, right?

Nope. All these threads are just left there, not pulled together. The individual stories that make up the book are entertaining, and I can see how they could be woven together to make a more impressive whole, but it just never bloody happens.

At the end, after all that, Marinda is happy to have had her adventures, but now she's going to settle down and marry and return to her small town. And that is All the stories are just in a book on the shelf, the Watchmaker is still in charge, her mother is still a caricature, and that's just it.


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