It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for a steampunk romp. Sort of. I adore the subculture but often find the literature lackluster. I had high hopes for Beth Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger but have come away from it with very mixed feelings.
All the requisite trappings are present here—a spunky heroine, airships, an alternate universe where scientific progress exists alongside older magic. Heroine Octavia is a medician, a Druidic doctor of sorts whose connection with The Lady (a healing goddess of sorts) is particularly strong. This leaves her the target of assassins, or Clockwork Daggers, as they are known, as she sets off to take a post in a city traumatized by plague and war. Her traveling companions include Mrs. Stout, a writer of lurid pulp tales with a few secrets of her own, and the enticing Alonzo Garrett, a hottie with one mechanical leg and an irresistible attraction to her.
Assassination attempts, first love, and in the backdrop, war—these should make for an appealing tale, and to some extent, they do. The most intriguing part of the story, to me, was the backdrop, by parts bustling industrial cities and in other parts of the world, post-apocalyptic wastelands. Octavia has tended to soldiers at the front and seen firsthand the horrors of war and what it does to people, which is a dynamic I haven’t seen a lot in steampunk. The different magic systems were also fascinating—while her own magic is of the healing variety, Octavia also encounters “infernals,” mages who can wield fire (naturally, they are among the ranks of the villains, a pity, since what little was revealed of them would have indicated some intriguing cultural attitudes had they not been filtered through Octavia’s biased lens).
Unfortunately, Octavia is the crux of my problems with this story. In my fanfiction days, she is what would have been called a Mary Sue—here is a gifted young woman who remains blissfully unaware that the power she wields is so spectacularly beyond what others of her rank can accomplish. Don’t get me wrong—I love a strong heroine. But by the end of the book, readers wonder if there is anything Octavia can’t do. Perhaps those are matters for another tale.
The Clockwork Dagger is clearly the setup for a series, and while this first volume didn’t overwhelm me, it is one I would follow for at least the worldbuilding.