‘The Wonder Engine’ had lots of good things in it. I enjoyed reading it. The character-building and the world-building were both strong. I found myself invested in what happened to the main characters and in their (complicated and conflicted) relationship to each other. I particularly liked Slate’s humour, even in the face of life-threatening danger and I loved the gnoles – they were a great invention both as individuals and as a culture.
Can you hear the BUT coming?
Of course you can.
BUT two things made it hard for me to lose myself in the book. Firstly, it wasn’t at all the book I expected based on its predecessor, ‘Clockwork Boys’. Secondly, the pacing, especially at the very beginning and the very end, didn’t work for me. It seemed to me that these two things are related.
I enjoyed ‘Clockwork Boys’. When I reviewed it I said:
The only thing that came as an unwelcome surprise is that ‘Clockwork Boys’ is really just the first forty per cent or so of a single book, ‘The Clocktaur War’, which was published in two parts, some months apart. ‘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.
I wasn’t too concerned as I had the second book, ‘The Wonder Engine’ on my shelves. It carries on from where the last book, with the four questers arriving at Anuket City to find how the Clockwork Boys are made and to stop them if they can but, although neither the characters nor the situation has changed, the tone of the second book is different from the first. The whole ‘Sword And Sorcery Quest with a twist’ vibe vanishes. In its place, we get a sort of character-driven heist story. This is not necessarily a bad thing and, had ‘Clockwork Boys’ and ‘The Wonder Engine’ been a single novel, the change in pace and feel might have not have been so noticeable. Unfortunately, the arrival at Anuket City felt a little flat. It wasn’t a good place to start a novel. It was too static and too slow and there was none of the sense of urgency that had kept the first book moving.
The ‘character-driven heist’ story was a slightly slow burn. A lot of time was spent dealing with Slate’s past. We knew from the first book that she had a history in Anuket City that made it dangerous for her to return there but we didn’t know what the history was. A lot of the book is spent finding out what she did and dealing with the consequences. We also get to learn more about Caliban, the ex-Paladin. He develops from the not-the-Paladin-you-were-expecting character that he was in the first book, to a fully-round (although still very strange) person. Brenner. the assassin, turns out to have a more complicated relationship with Slate than I’d previously understood and the nineteen-year-old scholar, The Learned Edmund, has undergone a transformation from a rule-following, over-formal man who is so-deeply-misogynistic-he-doesn’t-even-know-he’s-doing-it to a nice guy who treats Slate as a valued colleague and a friend.
I enjoyed learning about the characters and about Anuket City. There were enough surprises and enough tension and emotion along the way to keep me reading happily.
I was less happy with the ending. In terms of bringing the character arcs to a conclusion, everything worked smoothly, it was all plausible and satisfying without being predictable. BUT I felt that the mission – find and stop the clocktaurs – had fallen into the background. The conclusion of that mission was action-packed and had a couple of good surprises in it but it didn’t feel like a high-impact ending.
Khristine Hvam’s narration was, as always, very good and brought the characters alive. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.