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The Clockwork Dagger
by Beth Cato
HarperCollins, $14.99, 368pp
Published: September 2014

After so thoroughly enjoying Viola Carr's 'The Diabolical Miss Hyde', I decided that I had to follow up with Beth Cato's 'The Clockwork Dagger', because the two books seemed to have much in common.

Both are new novels from Harper Voyager, written by female authors who had never been published before, at least not under these names. Both are multi-genre period adventures, Victorian effectively if not strictly, with strong female leads. Both even feature cover illustrations that scream romance, even though that isn't the main drive of either book. And, of course, both are of interest to the steampunk scene.

What I found was that those similarities were very high level and this book turned out to remind much more of 'Dreadnought', the second novel in Cherie Priest's 'Clockwork Century' series, as it follows the same template throughout, if in a more episodic, cliffhanger sort of way.

Both 'Dreadnought' and 'The Clockwork Dagger' are set during a time of war, though Priest chose to fictionalise real history by setting her book during the American Civil War while Cato created an entirely fictional war in an entirely fictional world, the country of Caskentia years into a long and protracted conflict with the Dallows, also known in derogatory fashion as the Waste, which apparently describes the place well.

Both revolve around a leading lady who works in the medical field and is stubbornly but professionally unwilling to discriminate between sides. Priest placed her nurse, Mercy Lynch, under the Confederate flag while her husband had died for the Union. Cato's medician, Octavia Leander, finds safety and danger from both sides, not least because the man she finds that she can trust the most, Alonzo Garret, the Clockwork Dagger of the title, a Caskentian secret agent masquerading as an airship steward, is the son of the very Dallows general who caused the death of her entire family and her entire town.

Both characters find their stories explored during long and dangerous cross-country treks. Lynch follows the summons of her dying father from Virginia to Washington state, initially by airship and boat but mostly on the train of the title. Leander has been tasked with saving the stricken people of Delford, a long way from the city of Vorana where she climbs on board the airship on which she'll remain for most of her journey south. Incidentally, this airship is even named Argus to highlight how epic this journey will be, as we can be sure that it's not going to be a relaxing ride.

Both also tell grounded, dramatic stories but bring in a single fantastic element to spice things up. Priest's are the zombies created through contact with the gas seeping out of the Seattle ground. Cato's is the use of magic, Leander's powers sourced from the Lady and the Tree, which may or may not equate to the same thing in her pagan religion which intriguingly adds some Eastern elements to its Celtic roots. There's also Leaf, the baby gremlin that she rescues from a bludgeoning party and with whom she somehow bonds. He's an intriguing element who gets little to do here but may well get plenty in future episodes.

They're far from the same book, of course. Cato's prose aims far more for adventure than literature; she writes well but isn't trying to escape her genre, while Priest's eloquence is a sure sign that she's trying to write the great American novel, merely with zombies. Cato's lead is much younger, so there's also romance element mostly missing from 'Dreadnought'.

What's more, she adds a further complication here which soon manifests itself in the form of Leander's roommate on board the Argus, a complication which will surely become far more prominent in future books. Priest's novel was primarily a character study of her heroine, making little attempt to connect her adventures with the wider world that she had created in 'Boneshaker. Cato's builds Leander and her world together with further books very much in mind. 'The Clockwork Dagger' works well as a standalone novel, but is clearly intended just as deliberately as the first book in a series.

I enjoyed 'The Clockwork Dagger' a great deal and am looking forward to 'The Clockwork Crown', due in June ('The Deepest Poison', a short story, will predate it in April). There's a lot of potential for the world to grow enough that this book might seem like a small thing indeed once it's done. For now, it's substantial and consistent, with a wealth of interesting characters.

Chief among them, of course, is the medician, a multi-faceted heroine who stands out among her peers not because of looks but because of character. She's endearingly unaware of how special she is and has difficulty coming to terms with the revealed truth that so many people are indeed after her, whether to capture her, kill her or keep her safe. In other hands this can often seem forced but Cato has no trouble keeping her lead very believable indeed. The biggest stretch is surely her use of magic because it's entirely wrapped up in her religion and we often forget that this is a fantasy as much as it is a dramatic adventure because nobody else is doing anything similar.

As strong as she is, she would also be clearly dead many times over from the flurry of attacks aimed her way if it wasn't for Alonzo Garret. While he is often phrased very much like a prince coming to her rescue, she's thankfully never really a damsel in distress; she's too busy being the prince coming to the rescue of others because those attacks are aimed widely enough to not include her alone in their scope.

Mrs Viola Stout is the third of the key characters, Leander's roommate on board the Argus. It's clear from the outset that she isn't only the rich widow who enjoys travelling, but the reveal is a capable one which sets the tone for many similarly capable reveals later in the book. This is a world at war and, as publicity might say, it's dripping with intrigue. The game is afoot, nobody is who they seem and only the Shadow knows. Cato is far from the first writer to venture into this sort of cliffhanger territory but she does it all well enough and adds a good deal of texture through her characters and the cities they journey through.

I may be biased towards Beth because she brings cookies to her book signings and they're, as they say, to die for, but this is a worthy read for anyone who wants a little romance in their adventure, a lot of adventure in their romance and a dash of fantasy to spruce it all up. 'The Clockwork Dagger' gets dark on occasion (heck, it begins with a puppy being run over) but it refuses to stay there. It's a lighter and more conventional read than 'The Diabolical Miss Hyde' but it should please a lot of the same readers. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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