I don’t often read about robots or artificial intelligence. Humans are interesting enough, and even fictional revelations of humanity can be relevant in real life, while (in my life, at least) encounters with robots are all but nonexistent. Every now and then though, I like to pick up a book out of my normal range, and with Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty, I found an automaton book that actually shocked me.
About the book: In early 1700s Russia, two avtomat are awakened. They are brother and sister, a clockwork man whose life goal is justice, and a small woman whose dedication is logic. They are meant to serve the tsar, Peter the Great, and to succeed to “eternal tsardom” when he dies. Instead, they are exiled, and will spend hundreds of years traveling the world and trying to fulfill their life goals while keeping their true identities secret. In present day US, a researcher of clockwork artifacts forces her way too close to the truth of the avtomat, and begins to learn about a secret existence hiding amongst humanity. When her course clashes with the clockwork man’s, the two reveal and seek great secrets– the long extent of the avtomat history, the reason they’re dying out now, and how to revive them– before their mysteries are lost forever.
“New frontiers are waiting to be explored, no matter what the schoolteachers say or how many books have been written. Maps are just a lie we tell ourselves to feel safe.”
The Clockwork Dynasty utilizes a back-and-forth format, alternating chapters of Peter’s (the avtomat man’s) past and June’s (the human researcher’s) present. This gives the reader a rich sense of the different time periods at play in the narration and the variety of countries involved, as well as the dual perspectives of humanity and avtomat. Peter and June both narrate their chapters in the first person, and their similarities and differences are striking.
“We came striding out of the past, yet are bones are made of the future.”
“Most people are too caught up in the present to care about the past. But when I look at something old, when I touch it, I feel like I’m reaching into another world. A place with secrets. So, yes, part of the reason I’m helping you is because I’m curious.”
Fortunately, the characters are just as remarkable individually as they are in comparison. The full cast is wide, featuring both humans and avtomat, and although the narration is limited to two perspectives, the reader is provided a clear view of several main players. Peter’s sister, for instance, stands just outside of the major plot line, but she gives the reader a fuller sense of clockwork life through which we can better understand which of Peter’s quirks are facets of avtomat and which are his own personality. The brother/sister dynamic between clockwork creatures is highly intriguing because they are not siblings in the same way that humans are. There are also friendships and enmities within the wider avtomat population, which are equally interesting, though moreso for the secrets they reveal about the avtomat history and secrets. There is no romance in this novel, though at times the dialogue leans toward innuendos that feel oddly placed for asexual creatures. I rarely seek out books without romance– and yet, there is no romance whatsoever within this novel, and it is stronger for it. Any sort of side plot featuring a love story would have felt forced and unnatural, and I found that the rest of the not-quite-human relationships provided all the emotion I needed.
“I think we are but two small pieces of interlocking machinery in the great, faceless mechanism of the world.”
This book was described to me as a “science fiction thriller,” which I suppose I would agree with for lack of a better genre to name. The pacing, however, is not what I would call typical thriller pacing. There are only a few action scenes that were full of excitement and suspense; though there is a lot of action in the book, the intricate level of detail and elaborate prose slows down the pace. The reveals don’t kick up the reader’s adrenaline and keep him/her on the edge of his/her seat, but they’re undeniably surprising and each one opens up new ways to think about this fictional world and ultimately about the real world. I don’t truly believe that avtomat have been hiding in plain sight for thousands of years, but I do believe that the past contains mysteries that are still relevant today, and that present and future advancements in science are capable of revealing what has never been known or even seen before. The novel uses ideas like these to keep the story of clockwork lives connected to reality, and it plants beautiful ideas of life and reason into the framework of the plot. So while there are plenty of battle scenes and literal races for the truth, this is a book for the contemplative reader, and the reader more tolerant of flowery prose.
“‘We fall through the years,’ he continues, ‘like dust motes through a shaft of sunlight. We dance, each of us reflecting the same brilliance. And though we spiral into darkness, the light remains.'”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was a bit skeptical when I picked this one up, but it was definitely a risk that payed off in the end. This level of unexpected enjoyment is why I continue to pick up books that sound just outside of my normal reading range. Occasionally, I learn that I like something odd and surprising, like science fiction thrillers. I don’t know that I’ll be reading anything further from this author (although anything is possible), but I do know that I’ll be approaching books that I wouldn’t normally read with a more open mind in the future, which was the goal. I highly recommend exploring genres you don’t normally reach for, because those are the books with the greatest power to impress.
- Ernest Cline’s Ready player One is a faster-paced science fiction thriller. This one’s about a near future dystopia in which much of the world lives primarily inside a virtual reality instead of actual reality. There’s an on-going challenge inside this virtual oasis, a game-within-the-game, that can change everything–if only one knows enough about 80s pop culture to find the clues and best the creator.
- Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is another fast-paced sci-fi thriller. The main character of this one is a scientist with the skill to solve the mystery of dark matter– and use it to explore alternate realities. The twists in this novel are mind-boggling. If you’re looking for something completely unpredictable with high stakes and high suspense, this is it. You don’t even have to know anything about science or dark matter to love with this one.
- The Magicians by Lev Grossman is an urban fantasy adventure story with some strong similarities to The Clockwork Dynasty. If you like the idea of a secret world hiding within the bounds of everyday reality, this is a top contender about powerful magicians, in which the magic is a science to be studied rigorously rather than the usual (and frustrating) inexplicable miracle. This is a character-driven start to a trilogy that spans worlds and prompts the reader to view reality with an open mind.
What’s next: I’m currently reading both Saga: Book One (a compilation of the first three volumes of the graphic novel series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples) and Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs, a classic serial killer thriller with the perfect amount of horror for Halloween. I’ll probably be reviewing both of these next week, but it’s anyone’s guess as to which one I’ll be finishing first.
What spooky and thrilling reads are you exploring this Halloween?
The Literary Elephant