Juno Books, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-8095-7256-4
I love the world of Clockwork Heart. We have a city, Ondinium, which is basically a large stronghold of sorts built along a mountain. The lower caste – the workers – live in the foothills in an area called Tertius. The second caste, comprising soldiers and other folks stuck in between, live in the middle sector called Secundus. High up, in Primus where it is much cleaner and free from soot, lives the upper caste called the exalteds. Which caste you belong to is determined by which family you are born into, naturally, with the justification given that the family of exalted folks are those who have undergone refinement and purification by the Lady after a few cycles of reincarnation. Meanwhile, these folks have created the Great Machine, a complex artificial intelligence which can, based on your answers submitted in a questionnaire, determine not only which job you are suited to but also whether you are a potential enemy of the country.
Our heroine Taya Hawk is an icarus. Icarii are folks fitted with mechanical wings so that they can act as courier, scout, and even extra muscle as they flit from sector to sector. In this story, Taya’s life takes a turn for the more interesting when she takes part in a rescue of an exalted woman and her son when the cable car-like thing they are in malfunctions. Taya soon finds herself courted by the woman’s brother, Alister, a programmer of the Great Engine who is also working on some top secret projects while being intrigued by Alister’s brother, Cristof. Cristof has long ago decided that he is above all that caste nonsense, so he cuts his hair and lives in Tertius as a clock repairman. Of course, he keeps his facial markings as an exalted and he isn’t really exiled by his caste, so the effect of his “rebellion” is diluted by the fact that he can always run home to his exalted Mommy and ask for favors when the going gets tough.
Not to spoil the story too much, I’ll just say that Taya and Cristof soon find themselves investigating a death and learn that not everything may be what it seems to be at the surface.
The setting is fantastic. There are plenty of opportunities for intrigue, sociopolitical messages, and more. The potential of great storytelling in this setting is incredible. Therefore, imagine my dismay when I end up feeling like hurling this book across the room in disgust by the midpoint of this story.
My problem is this: the story is very heroine-centric in the sense that pretty much everything is seen from her point of view despite the third person narration in this story. And Taya, to my disgust, is a blank slate incapable of critical thinking. She acts before she thinks, and she’s determined to try to do amazing things when it’s clear that this woman will not survive even a dramatic encounter with a malfunctioning washing machine.
Taya wants to be a diplomat. But when she is told that she would need to carry out some politicking in her dream job, she recoils in disgust because she doesn’t like politics (she doesn’t even read the local newspapers). She wants to become a diplomat because she wants to see faraway places, you see, because, really, that is all a diplomat does – sight-seeing 24/7.
When Cristof tries to drill some college-level sociology soapbox ranting into Taya’s skull, she is incapable of soaking anything up because, to put it bluntly, she has less intellectual capacity than an electrocuted gerbil. On page 165, Cristof tries to tell Taya that the exalteds are imperfect people no better or worse than she.
“The Lady permits us an eternity of rebirth to refine our base souls, and being born as exalteds is supposed to prove that we’re close to the final forging. But the reality is that exalteds are as imperfect as anyone else and just as liable to shatter under pressure.
“My father beat my mother to death and killed himself. The caste covered it up. It wouldn’t be in our best interest to admit that exalteds can go mad, you see. The lower castes might lose faith in our ability to rule the city.” Cristof’s voice dripped venom. “So we lie to them.”
“Nobody would want to talk about something that terrible. It wouldn’t matter what caste it had happened in.”
Taya also has a clear sense of priorities. Witness her train of thought as Cristof interrogates a potential murder suspect on page 172:
“What other programs was he working on?” Cristof repeated, raising his voice and cutting through the imminent argument. He turned, and Taya felt him study her red face a moment before addressing Victor. “What program would be worth killing over?”
A silence fell over the room. Taya caught her breath and glowered at Emilie. The programmer was dressed in casual clothes, with her long black hair caught back but slipping from its pins. She wasn’t as petite as Taya, but she was thinner, without an icarus’s wiry muscles. She was good-looking enough, in a kind of careless, bookwormy way. Taya had a hard time imagining Alister being interested in her.
Someone was murdered. Taya however is sizing up her rivals during the interrogation scene, thinking that she’s on The Bachelor.
The only reason I force myself to finish this story is because I want to see how the whole murder thing plays out. But after having to endure insufferable Taya’s incessant blank-slate presence in this story, I am not sure whether the pay-off is worth my valiant effort.
Clockwork Heart has a brave new world to explore, but my goodness, the heroine is certainly horrific as an example of a deliberately ignorant and intellectually empty heroine who is actually proud of her own inadequacies. If the author returns to this world, I don’t mind paying another visit, as long as the likes of Taya stay clear of my way.