For the first time I see what must be my own hand. An economy of brass struts wrapped in supple leather. And now I truly begin to understand that I am also a thing in this world. Not like the doll who is writing a few feet away with all the mindfulness of water choosing a path downhill. Something more.
Daniel H. Wilson, author of the popular Robopocalypse series, has a book coming out this August about a completely different type of robot: a sentient race of clockwork beings who have kept their existence a secret from humanity for centuries. Until now.
In 1709 Russia, a creature of clockwork and leather opens its eyes to see the delicate porcelain face of a doll that’s been cleverly made to write. In present day Oregon, June Stefanov examines a centuries-old writing doll, trying to record everything she can before it’s inevitably lost to whoever it is that’s been destroying clockwork rarities. June carries a strange relic passed on by her grandfather, and before the end of the day she’ll be running for her life from a monster who’s trying to steal the relic and then silence June before she can pass along the word she learned from the doll: avtomat.
If you’re drawn to this book by the gorgeous cover, like I was, then there’s a lot to love about this story. The creatures the author has created for this are powered by a crescent-shaped object that sits where a heart would normally go (and which not even they understand), and they change throughout the centuries, replacing metal supports and fake leather skin with more and more high-tech materials. But at their core they’re still clockwork, and Clockpunk fans like myself can linger over all the descriptions of their mechanisms and the tinkering and craftwork done to make them seem more human. And despite being such elegant creations, the author comes up with some pretty gruesome ways to describe the ways they break.
My broken torso drags entrails of metal, leather and wax.
The reader sees half of the book told through the eyes of Pyotr, or Peter, the avtomat. He and his clockwork sister are reconstructed and awakened into the court of Peter the Great in Moscow, and they’re both trained to blend in with human society. The goal is for one day to have Pyotr assume Peter the Great’s identity and fulfill the Russian emperor’s goal of having an eternal tsar to rule the empire.
Anyone who’s read any Russian history will know that dream dies in February of 1725. Peter and Elena are condemned as abominations and have to escape Russia. The two of them spend decades hiding in London, passing themselves off as eccentric humans. They’re surprisingly good at it, but they’re also growing more and more miserable as Peter works as a debt collector, and then a soldier in India, trying to find a purpose now that his emperor is dead. Meanwhile Elena longs to connect with other beings like them, and struggles with all the limitations that come with looking like a 12-year-old female child in pre-Victorian society.
“It can be a burden, I know –”
“You know?” She spits the word at me. “You’re free to go anywhere you like, to converse as equals with anyone. While I am trapped here in these apartments, in the body of a little girl. Writing letters with a man’s name of them.”
The other half of the story is told from June’s point of view. An expert in medieval automatons, but without the money for travel or state-of-the art tools, she’s grateful for the funding she received from a mysterious benefactor who wants information on any mechanical antiquities she can find. Learning just one word ends up turning her entire life upside-down when she’s attacked something that looks like – but most definitely is not – human.
And you know what? June deals with it. Sure she’s terrified, bewildered, and completely unprepared to deal with the discovery of inhuman beings with their impossible technology and their civil war over mysterious items that are slowly running out of power. She’s also stronger than she thinks she is and exactly as intelligent as she believes she is, and she’s been fascinated by the relic her grandfather found on a battlefield in WWII for so long that she’s curious enough to stick with her investigation. There are still some nail-biting scenes while she’s having to flee something that’s right behind her, but she manages to hold her ground. Mostly. With help.
The two stories are told in tandem, with very brief chapters shuttling back and forth between the past and the present. The author weaves the stories together so that the end of one chapter occasionally echoes the start of the next, and deftly places all the information you need so you’ll understand what’s going on with any sudden development, while still being surprised.
Daniel H. Wilson’s prose is fast-moving and flowing, easily drawing you into places like 1700’s Russia or London. He grounds the story with little details like the sound of gravel popping under tires, and regularly sets the mood with beautifully poetic phrases.
The courtyard is crisply freezing under cascades of weak sunlight. Sheets of steam rise in a haze off warming rooftops as morning hearth fires are stoked. A skim of ice leads a fantastical sheen to the cobblestones of the palace, and we seem to glide out over a river of mercury.
The book is packed with battles and silent assassinations, desperate lost love and a smart-aleck monk, antique craftwork and a glowing table that heals with something that looks like mercury. In one chapter two avtomats fight in a whirl of robes and swords, in another a delicate clockwork girl stands in a filthy hallway and then commences a deeply satisfying slaughter. Peter and June’s stories run on a collision course, but even after they meet there’s still the overarching mystery of who first made the avtomats, and why. And just why have members of Peter and Elena’s own kind been hunting for them for centuries?