Convicted criminal Slate knows she’s not the first choice to lead an expedition into enemy territory. Heck, she’s not even the second. No one else has managed to find any useful information on the rampaging Clockwork Boys though, so she and a smart-aleck assassin, a failed paladin, and a misogynistic scholar have been press-ganged into infiltrating a neighboring city to find something, anything, that will save the Dowager’s City from the invading army.
It’s an act of pure desperation on the Dowager’s part, but Slate is hopeful for her little band….she’s actually hoping they’ll all manage to kill each other and save everyone else the trouble.
Right from the start, this novel is different from most of the other stories by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon to her Deviantart fans). Slate is most definitely not a child stumbling into a fairytale. Or a young villager realizing her friend has been kidnapped by a witch. Or any of the other Kingfisher characters who find themselves pulled into a completely alien world. Daughter of a wealthy courtesean, Slate decided at an early age that she wasn’t cut out to follow in her mother’s footsteps, so she became a criminal instead.
Slate is a dazzlingly talented forger, and she has the nondescript appearance and breaking-and-entering skills necessary to get into the secure places where important documents are stored. (She also has a hereditary early warning system for magical threats, which would be more useful if she didn’t find it so damned annoying.) She’s cheerfully amoral, has no problem with reaching out to help a friend (or a loyal customer), and has seen enough of the everyday weirdness that’s so prevalent in the big city that she doesn’t automatically freak out when she runs across a new type of magical weirdness.
She’s also 100% sure that she’s going to die on this trip, along with everyone she’s traveling with. When you get right down to it, she’s not even sure what something that would defeat the Clockwork Boys would look like. Much less how to find it.
“Maybe they’d all melt if you throw live chickens at them or something.”
“They’re supposed to be eight-foot-tall killing machines. Do you really think chickens would work?”
“I don’t know that it’s been tried.”
It’s suicide to even go into the no-man’s-land between the Dowager’s city and Anuket. Everyone else who’s been sent on a similar quest has died or disappeared; Slate wouldn’t even be going herself except for an extremely nasty bit of magical insurance that’s literally carved into her arm. The mission is doomed from the start, and Slate has gotten so used to the idea of dying that she’s almost blasé about it. After all, death would mean she won’t have to deal with one more fight between all of her hilariously mismatched traveling companions.
The group dynamics here are endlessly entertaining. Caliban, ex-paladin of the Dreaming God, had the bad luck to be possessed by a demon he was trying to exorcise; said demon proceeded to hijack Caliban’s body and slaughter several defenseless nuns and novices. He’s been exorcised of the demon now, but that didn’t exactly fix things. There’s a whole new set of rules for demonic possession in this book. The side-effects are something I’d never considered before, and they don’t go away, ever.
And of course Slate’s attracted to him, and of course Caliban’s explanations for why that’s a bad idea don’t go over well at all.
“You’d better not snore,” she grumbled into the dark.
“I don’t snore.”
“I gibber in demonic tongues.”
Brenner the assassin is an old friend/lover/annoyance of Slate’s, and he’s incapable of taking anything seriously. The phrase “Shut up, Brenner” is used at least once a chapter, not always by Slate, and Brenner makes it pretty clear he thinks Caliban’s personal tragedy might just be a giant sham.
And then there’s Learned Edmund, scholar of the Many-Armed God and the only member of the party who’s there of his own free will. His sect only allows men to join, and Learned Edmund’s first act in the story is to wonder why he’s not in charge since he’s the only one who isn’t a criminal, and anyway he certainly can’t be expected to travel with a girl. Kingfisher obviously enjoys pitting her characters against each other, so my first thought when Edmund opened his mouth was “Ooo, this is going to be fun.”
“…Learned Edmund is apparently afraid that if he sleeps on your floor, your feminine exhalations with cause his genitals to wither and his bowels to turn to water. That’s a direct quote, by the way.”
Infighting aside, there’s a little less whimsy in this book than in Kingfisher’s usual tales. The characters have to deal with all of the mundane annoyance you usually don’t think about with a fantasy adventure (like what it feels like to ride a horse for ten hours straight when you haven’t ridden since you were twelve. Or ever.) The repeated but vague mentions of the marauding force known as the Clockwork Boys sounds like something out of the Girl Genius series, but the further the party gets into the wilderness, and the more they encounter the effects from these creatures, the more dire the situation becomes.
The center of the town had a market square. There were ox-carts arranged around it, as if people had been packing up to leave when the Clockwork Boys came.
Both people and oxen were still there, but you could no longer tell one from the other.
Dark as it is sometimes, everything I enjoy about Kingfisher’s stories is on display here. I love the rhythm of her writing, the call and response of the dialog. Her characters grow and change throughout the story, sometimes in unexpected directions. The book has sections that are filled with random, off-kilter images, with extra details that turn something merely unusual into something startlingly surreal. And the author can surprise you with things that you had no idea were going to be so delightful, like a run-in with bandits, or a handkerchief. I lost track of all the quotable moments, and I haven’t even started on the village of creatures that seem to be a hybrid of human and fantasy-painted deer.
It impresses me right down to the ground that Kingfisher apparently started writing this book years ago out of sheer annoyance that so many people who write fantasy-paladins were doing it all wrong. The original idea expended into a second book, so now I’m already counting down the days to February when part 2 of the Clocktaur series will be released. The ending to this one wasn’t entirely a cliffhanger, but we’d only just gotten a taste of what the Clockwork Boys really look like, and we still don’t know what’s waiting in Anuket that’s part of Slate’s history, and why she’s almost more afraid of it than she is of anything else she’s run into so far.