Adrienne Martini Reviews Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher

Clockwork Boys, T. Kingfisher (Argyll Produc­tions 978-1614504160, $12.95, 262pp, tp) March 2018.

The Wonder Engine, T. Kingfisher (Argyll Productions 978-1614504177, $24.95, 318pp, hc) March 2018.

In case like me, you didn’t know: the Hugo and Nebula Award winning writer/artist/chicken wrangler Ursula Vernon reserves the name T. Kingfisher for her works that are better suited to an adult audience. Her Clocktaur War books are decidedly that – but not in a XXX-style adult way. It’s just that these two books tell the story of fully formed and lived-in adults, rather than thinly sketched teenagers who happen to live in adult skins. It’s a difference that you don’t really notice until you get about halfway into the first book, Clockwork Boys. (Like Kowal’s duology, these two books form a complete story.) The story starts like a standard quest narrative: Slate, a skilled forger, is forced to form a team to find a book that will provide the clues to stop the “clockwork boys” who are destroying the countryside. There’s a romance, too, and some notable sub-plots in­volving seasonal allergies, a flesh-eating tattoo, and demonic possession.

As Slate and her compatriots journey toward what will likely be their doom, Vernon starts to show how rich her characters are. These are people with the sorts of complex histories that you only develop as a grown-up. They’ve learned lessons and they have baggage, yet each wears his or her experiences with an acceptance that settles over relatively functional adults. Their experiences happened; dwelling on them changes nothing – and there is work to do. Despite some personal darkness, there is a lightness to who each character is.

Except, of course, when there isn’t. Vernon excels at writing delightful stories whose tone can turn on a dime. In one paragraph, she can move from deft banter to sob-inducing tragedy while still keeping the experience delightful. Slate, the assassin Brenner, the paladin Caliban, and the young Learned Edmund each have their charms; what really sells the story, however, is Vernon’s voice itself. What she does with words sets the Clocktaur War books apart and makes them special.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.

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