Saturday, October 15, 2011

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel (Elias Anderson & EC Belikov)

Though the premise of Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel makes it look like your standard-issue adventure fare, it plumbs unexpected depths to make the reading experience quite worth your while. It opens strong on the action as it tells the story of the crew of the airship Masamune: its captain Violet, mechanic Tibbs, and former Inspector Moriarty now on the wrong side of the law.

The prose is certainly hardworking. It never lets the reader forget its steampunk roots as it weaves generous descriptions and terminologies into the alternative western story. I didn't feel that there was an excess of information provided; the wordbuilding was on-key. Unfortunately, there are times when the text descends into dry, almost didactic narrative of the tell, not show variety ('Moriarty now sat down to a hot meal and thought back at that fiery day, seven months ago, when what was now his family, for better or worse, had come together' p20) and forced sentiment (Violet compares a suitor to 'a lone rose in the middle of a pallid desert wasteland' p32). Thankfully, the uneveness doesn't last long. At 30,000 or so words, things tend to move pretty quickly. Aside from an obligatory origin chapter, the action is managed well, each move calculated, nothing wasted.

I was ready to write this off as a run-of-the-mill action-adventure story when the last few chapters happened. This is when things really get interesting, and it switches the dynamic of the story from a oneshot adventure session into a harsh moral dilemma. Although there are already hints of issues cropping up in previous chapters (most intriguing for me was the Augmentation Society and its implications), what occurs in the last third of the book is a major turning point not just for the story but for the world it inhabits.

I thought the characters here were a mixed bag. Take Violet, the captain. I don't adhere to the school of thought that to escape female stereotypes, a beautiful woman must be anti-female; in this novella, Violet hates dresses and heels, hates being ordered for, hates being reminded that she is a woman. Even when her past is revealed and in the light of what had happened to her, I believe we can expect more challenging characterizations from our authors than the shopworn variety. I'm also not convinced of Moriarty's role in this enterprise. I'm guessing his presence in the triumvirate is to be the moral compass, the everyman that may give the readers familiar ground, but so far there is little development in his area. The most intriguing character in my opinion is Tibbs, whom at first I had written off as a mere third wheel. In the course of the novel he had leaped to the forefront as a gamechanger. Most of your questions about the characters are answered by the time the novella closes, and I appreciated that the authors didn't feel the need to tease the readers more than was necessary.

One thing that greatly bothered me in this book was the way Violet, Moriarty, and Tibbs treated Harris, a secondary character who had the job they needed to fulfill theirs. Suffice to say that it left me just as horrified as what Parker had been doing at his ranch. Whether it had been deliberately made to add to the existing issues of the book or not, it had me reassessing my opinion of the crew.

Let's talk marketing and branding for a moment. Judging books by their cover is a reader-response that most authors must deal with. Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel's own cover is cleanly-executed but it has grim and serious quality to it. While it does echoes the heavier themes that the novella bravely tackles, I also think the tough alternative western, action-adventure aspect of the novella could be further highlighted to draw more interest to the e-book. Another suggestion would be tighter editing. The western slang adds color and can't be faulted, but the novella could use another editing eye (with careful attention to comma use).

Despite my problems with the uneven prose, I still found this a solid effort and a laudably courageous start. It looks like there is plenty to look forward to -- both in action and in character growth -- as the rest of the series unfolds.

This review is cross-posted to Adarna SF. The authors provided a free copy for this review.

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