It’s hard to come up with something fresh to start a sword and sorcery fantasy quest with a rag-tag bunch of misfits going on a suicide mission but T. Kingfisher makes it look easy.
She writes engaging characters without necessarily making them nice characters. Her heroine is a forger convicted of treason who has teamed up with an assassin who enjoys the hunt more than the kill, a disgraced knight, locked up for life for murdering nuns while he was possessed by a demon and a brilliant but young scholar who regards women as biologically subversive. The forger, smart, brave, witty, is the easiest to like. The knight proud but guilt-ridden, looking to atone, is the easiest to forgive. Kingfisher shows us the world through their eyes. Watching them misunderstand and confuse each other is part of the fun.
Kingfisher is also adept at twisting tropes until something original is squeezed out from the familiar. For example, the forger, the knight and the assassin aren’t the typical type of noble questers, ready to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. They only take on the suicide mission of travelling to a foreign city, through a war zone, to find and destroy the Clockwork Boys, fearsome creatures who are part machine and part something else, because they have been offered full pardons in the unlikely event that they succeed. They are kept on mission by each having a magical tattoo placed on their right arm. If they abandon the mission, the tattoo will eat them.
The world all of this is happening is well-thought-through but isn’t pushed down the reader’s throat in info-dumps. Instead, it’s glimpsed as if through the latticework window of a moving carriage, making every detail seem tantalising.
Kingfisher takes the time to develop the main characters and to build relationships between them as they prepare for their quest and then set out for the city where they’re likely to die – assuming they’re not killed by something else on the way. The journey is long and sometimes slow but never tedious. The actions scenes are exciting. The carnage wrought by the monstrous Clockwork Boys happens off-screen but we’re left in no doubt about how the deadly, heartless violence that they deliver to everyone they meet.
There’s a surprising amount of ironic, self-deprecating, how-do-I-keep.getting-myself-into-these-situations type of humour in the book, that I thought worked well.
The only thing that came as an unwelcome surprise is that ‘Clockwork Boys’ is really just the first forty percent or so of a single book, ‘The Clocktaur War’, which was published in two parts, some months apart. ‘The Clockwork Boys’ pulls the team together, drags them through some interesting and difficult challenges and then comes to an abrupt halt when the team make it through the war zone to the city.
Fortunately, the second part of the story is instantly available as ‘The Wonder Engine’ which. apart from a brief ‘Previously, on Clocktaur Wars‘ prologue, carries straight on from the arrival at the city gates.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘Clockwork Boys’ because it’s narrated by Khristine Hvam whose voice I know well from the Jane Yellowrock books. As usual, she does a great job. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.