9 Rated Books

Book Review: Clockwork Heart

Title: Clockwork Heart

Author: Dru Pagliassotti

Genre: Fantasy, Steampunk

Stand Alone or Series: Stand alone novel; although according to Ms. Pagliassotti’s website there is a forthcoming sequel!

Why did I read this book: Tia at Fantasy Debut had a debut showcase for this novel earlier this year which caught my eye–and Angie’s review sealed the deal.

Summary: (from Amazon.com)
A steampunkish romantic fantasy set in Ondinium, a city that beats to the ticking of a clockwork heart. Taya, a metal-winged courier, can travel freely across the city’s sectors and mingle indiscriminately among its castes. A daring mid-air rescue leads to involvement with two scions of an upperclass family and entanglement in a web of terrorism, loyalty, murder, and secrets.


The steampunk genre is one that has been garnering a larger following over the past few years, though it has been around for considerably longer. I’ve been attracted to the genre, but had not read any of the newer wave fiction–and so when I saw Clockwork Heart, I decided to get more intimately acquainted with steampunk.

Taya is an Icarus–she flies on state sanctioned metal wings above Ondinium, delivering messages and packages from sector to sector. The scene begins with Taya, resting and contemplating whether she can eat and squeeze in a bath before her sister’s wedding that evening. All her plans for relaxation, however, are rudely interrupted as she sees a wireferry girder collapsing with two people trapped inside the moving car. Icarii are more than just the messengers of Ondinium, but also serve as a rescue and protective force–and as such, Taya rushes immediately to the scene, to try and extract the trapped citizens before the car crashes to the ground below. Taya manages to save both victims, a mother and son, both of the Exalted caste. Shaken and grateful, the Exalted lady Viera Octavus tells Taya that she owes her a debt of gratitude she will not soon forget. As soon as Taya has finished her questioning by the city lictors, she decides to make one final delivery for the night–taking her to the private office of another Exalted caste member, the suave decatur Alister Forlore–and his outcaste brother, Cristof. Coincidentally both are cousins to the Viera Octavus. Soon, Taya finds herself caught up on a wave of intrigue–involving the Octavuses and the Forlores in a political, murderous, complicated scheme to change Ondinium forever.

Clockwork Heart is an intriguing hybrid of genres, defying a simple classification. It is a fantasy novel, drawing on steampunkish setting and technology and some fine world building. At its heart (har-har), it is a character-driven tale, involving the entanglements of family and duty, and the romance between a young woman and two very different brothers. The blend is intoxicating, making Clockwork Heart a stunning debut novel.

The city of Ondinium is as spoke-and-gear driven as the Great Engine that powers it. Divided into three sectors–Primus, Secundus, and Tertius–the city’s three castes stick to their own districts on the face of the Yeovil mountains; the Exalteds in Primus, the Cardinals in Secundus, and the Plebians in Tertius. The wireferries serve to transport Exalteds from location to location, with the Primus district located well higher above the lower districts of Secundus and Tertius. Tertius, at the bottom of the city both geographically and in terms of caste, is characterized by its sooty, dirtier buildings, uneven cobblestone streets, its sky clouded by wires and platforms. All of Ms. Pagliassotti’s descriptions vividly portray life in the city of Ondinium, conjuring a beautiful, if flawed society–almost reminiscent of an Industrial Revolution London. The Icarii, such as Taya, stand outside of the machinations of caste–flying freely between district to district. While the lines of caste are rigidly upheld (each citizen bears the marks of caste upon their face–save the Icarii–and the Exalteds must wear a mask and loose fitting robes in public), this is not to say that Ondinium is a society where the plebians in Tertius are wretched, impoverished beings the Exalteds exploit, while greedily usurping the riches of the city. No, Ondinium is organized–like clockwork–such that no one wants for food or aid, though the Exalteds do live to a higher standard than the commoners below them. At the age of 7, every child in Ondinium takes the Great Examination–determining what their aptitudes are, and which way for them to best serve the city (allowing for a Tertius born child, such as Taya, to rise above her caste). The rationale for the castes is such that the Exalteds earn their status since they have been reborn so many more times than those in the castes below them–and this is the will of their deity, The Lady, so it is not challenged. At least, in theory.

Cristof Forlore, brother to the charming Alister, is a self-imposed outcast–wanting nothing further to do with his Exalted birth, and tired of wearing his mask. He spurns his inheritance and moves to Tertius where he works as a Clockmaster. Cristof’s dissatisfaction is just one symptom that the city of Ondinium is facing times of change and upheaval–and not just through the usual channels. Acts of terrorism, external threats of neighboring lands, and internal politics all characterize the multifaceted problems facing the city.

More important than the concise–and miraculously never confusing–world building, however, is the development of characters throughout this story. Taya is a brave and intelligent heroine, bound to her duty and her station as an Icarus. Though she faces temptation in the form of Alister, she is not swept away by her emotions. Taya’s level-headedness and sense of duty allows readers to connect with her character, as we are privy to her thoughts and emotions (through the limited third person point of view). The cast of characters is increasingly broad, as the many roots of conspiracy and intrigue deepen–but Ms. Pagliassotti’s writing flawlessly identifies and distinguishes between each character, and I had no trouble discerning who was who over the course of the book. Even with such a broad cast, the main characters all are fully developed and realized, feeling real in their motivations, emotions and flaws. The relationships between Taya, Cristof and Alister are splendidly complicated and rich–from attraction to budding romance, brotherly devotion to conflict. The friendship-romantic entanglements only add more dimension to this rich novel–enough to satiate any fan of romance, but not at the expense of the well-paced story.

From a writing standpoint, both symbolically and linguistically, Clockwork Heart shines. The Latin derivations for the setting, even the name of the city are familiar allusions–Ondinium similar to Londinium, the Roman name for London. The namesake for the Icarii, of the Grecian Icarus flying on manufactured wings, is also an apt allusion for Taya’s tale–not just for the face value similarities of mechanical wings, but for Taya’s story. When she flies higher than her station she becomes entangled in a web from which she cannot escape–but instead of plummeting to her doom, as the ill-fated Icarus of myth–she gains her freedom through her own strength. Other touches, from common slang to curses, are impressively imagined and thorough (for example, the “Torn Cards” as a terrorist group, emulating the punch cards used to program the analytical engines of the city)–there are no out of place or awkward colloquialisms here.

Finally, there is the outstanding technological aspect to the book–the mechanisms that drive Ondinium itself. Named for the ondium ore that lies in the veins of its mountains, the City excavates this precious material that serves as the lifeblood of nearly all their technology. Icarii cannot fly without their ondium counterweights, giving them a lighter density; the Great Engine cannot run without being powered by the substance. The mines of Ondinium are nearly tapped out, and conservation is essential. Another fascinating (to me) aspect of the city was the way engines ran–using a system of punch cards to program the large computers, putting me in a mindstate of older database computers of universities in years past which had to be literally rewired for each separate query, or the IBM punched card computers of old. The concepts of having an engine predetermining aptitudes, loyalties, even romantic involvements were fascinating to read, applied here in Ms. Pagliassotti’s world. And, as with each of the characters, the caste system and the settings, the technological aspect to the book only served to enhance the story without becoming confusing or cumbersome to the plot.

While the plot did have some predictable elements, Ms. Pagliassotti always managed to take the story, the characters a step further than other fantasy writers (especially of the urban fantasy persuasion) might, earning my respectful awe. Though I had figured out, in part, the ultimate villain(s) of the tale far before the reveal, there were some surprising developments that occur after the book easily could have ended–and I appreciated that. And, for any qualms I may have about a predictable mystery, the rest of the story is so beautifully written that I could care less. This book is a keeper, and I look forward to reading more from Juno and the talented Dru Pagliassotti in the future.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

Here’s a passage showing Ms. Pagliassotti’s lush descriptions, as Taya walks through her old home sector of Tertius.

The streets in the lower sector were darkened by a gritty haze of coal smoke and wood ash and by the crisscrossing cables and iron girders that formed the lowest level of the wireferry transit system. Buildings were constructed with jutting upper levels that formed wooden arches over the narrow streets, leaving only narrow slices of sky open to view like skylights.

And here is one of my favorite scenes:

“Easy, now.” Taya smoothed his sweat-dampened hair and adjusted his glasses. “That was good. That was really good.” She leaned forward and hugged him. “Silly crow. I told you that you could fly.”

He stiffened a moment, then he grabbed her, pulling her close and clutching her as though his life depended on it…

“I still feel like I’m falling,” he said at last, looking up. A gleam of morning sunlight played around the wire rim of his glasses. “I’m afraid to let go.”

For a moment she stared into his pale eyes.

“It’s all right. You’re safe.” Her pulse pounded in her throat. Had anyone ever looked at her so desperately before? She wanted a glimpse behind his mask, and now she knew what was back there–a deep, aching loneliness. “There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.”

Additional Thoughts: Steampunk is a genre rapidly gaining ground in the Speculative Fiction market. From comics such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to anime like Steamboy or Howl’s Moving Castle, these elements are present in a number of films, games and literature. For more on the genre, check out Heather’s recent steampunk showcase over at The Galaxy Express.

Verdict: Clockwork Heart is a beautiful debut novel, and most likely going to make my Top 10 Books of 2008. Dru Pagliassotti is a highly talented author–and I eagerly await the sequel to this novel. Any fans of fantasy, of romance, or of the steampunk persuasion should buy this lush, stunning novel.

Rating: 9 Damn Near Perfection – I was wavering between an 8 and a 9 for this one, and though technically my analytical mind wants to give it an 8, my emotional side wins over with the 9.

Reading Next: The Chosen Sin by Anya Bast


  • Ana
    October 1, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Wow, I am completely intrigued. The world building sounds incredible Thea! I am very interested in Steampunk now.

    Oh, and good to see the emotional side trumping the mind! LOL.

  • Peta
    October 2, 2008 at 2:30 am

    This book sounds great – such a shame that I had placed an amazon order seconds before reading the review… I’ll try to squeeze it into the next one instead πŸ˜‰

  • Christine
    October 2, 2008 at 6:19 am

    What an interesting novel. I admit I’ve never heard of steampunk before, but I want to give this book a try-it sounds very different.

  • M.
    October 2, 2008 at 6:46 am

    what an intriguing cover, and i think, the first time i’ve ever seen the font used for the author’s name.

    also, i’ve just about reached the point where i’ll read anything that doesn’t sport an anonymous manchest cover!

    OT – your recommendations are having effect! saw gaiman’s ‘coraline’ the other day and scooped it up for my son!

  • Tia Nevitt
    October 2, 2008 at 7:48 am

    Ok, I’ve been regretting it ever since I let Raven review this at my blog (she loved it), and now you’re making me regret it even more! I’m going to have to read it for myself!

  • Thea
    October 2, 2008 at 7:51 am

    Peta–definitely add this one to the next amazon batch! It’s a book that took me by surprise, and I’m so glad I picked it up.

    Christine–It certainly is different, but in a cool, almost retro-magical way. I’ll certainly be looking into more steampunkish novels in the near future πŸ™‚ I think this is one that you will *really* like. The world building is superb, and the romance is sweet and well realized πŸ™‚

    M.–the cover art completely sold me. Just say no to the half face man chest! LOL! Really this is a wonderful fantasy novel. I hope you give it a try!

    And hooray for Coraline!!!! I hope your son enjoys it πŸ™‚ Did you get the book or graphic novel version? I need to get a copy of the graphic novel soon.

  • Thea
    October 2, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Tia, you must read this one! I think you’ll really love it too.

    Pick it up when you’re done with Black Ships πŸ˜‰

  • Brie
    October 2, 2008 at 10:13 am

    I finished this last night and really enjoyed it! There were a few predictable parts, and one scene that I thought went on for a little too long, but I was glued to the pages until I had finished the book.

    It is a little reminiscent of The Samaria series which is fantasy with a little romance, and Mistborn which is Steampunk with a touch of romance. Almost falls directly in the middle of the two.

  • Ciara
    October 2, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Sweet. i’ve been intrigued by this steampunk thing (since so many authors keep saying it’s their sideproject), but haven’t yet found a book to read in the genre. i’ll have to pick this up! (A few weeks ago I checked out Steamboy, but I fell asleep watching it. πŸ™ )
    great review!

  • Angiegirl
    October 2, 2008 at 11:33 am

    Grin. So glad you loved it, Thea. Great review and that last scene you excerpted is probably my favorite as well.

  • icedtea
    October 2, 2008 at 11:59 am

    I’ve heard the term steampunk, but haven’t ventured into trying anything yet – I’m adding this to my wishlist, thanks. The cover is great, I’d pick it up in a store to find out more on that factor alone.

  • Thea
    October 2, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Brie, I’m glad you liked this one too. It definitely had that unputdownable quality to it πŸ˜‰ And I agree with you that there was a degree of predictability with this novel..but I found myself so caught up with the world and the characters, that I could overlook some of those debut novel kinks πŸ™‚

    I have Archangel on my TBR–I really should get around to reading the Samaria books. *blushes* I’ll bump it up in the queue! And I haven’t heard of Mistborn–thanks! Added to the shopping cart at amazon.

    Ciara–thanks! Definitely give this one a read, I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it. I haven’t seen Steamboy yet (although I did just win a copy :p ). Have you seen Howl’s Moving Castle? There are some steampunkish elements to that film–and it’s my second favorite anime movie ever πŸ™‚ I highly recommend it!

    Angie–thank you for the heads up and recommendation πŸ™‚ I really loved this novel–especially the scene after they land πŸ™‚ I’m excited for the sequel!

    Icedtea–I think Clockwork Heart is a fabulous place to start πŸ™‚ I hope you’ll enjoy this one! (And again, that cover art really is stunning. I’m a fan!)

  • Tracy
    October 2, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Wow – just wow. That was an amazing review that totally sucked me in. I really want to read this book and it’s not even near what I normally choose for myself.

    And I must live under a rock because I’ve never heard of steampunk before.

  • orannia
    October 2, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    I’m heard the term steampunk before but I’ve gone blank (off to Wiki πŸ™‚

    Thank you so much Thea! The book sounds fascinating!

    also, i’ve just about reached the point where i’ll read anything that doesn’t sport an anonymous manchest cover!

    Dare I ask m?

  • Pam P
    October 3, 2008 at 9:04 am

    The cover had me taking a look, and I liked what I had read; with your great review, on the wishlist.

  • Angiegirl
    October 3, 2008 at 9:40 am

    Thea, you haven’t read Archangel yet? Oh, man, now I’m dying to know what you think of it. Bump that sucker up a little higher in the stack! πŸ˜‰

  • Brie
    October 3, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Thea, I thought I’d let you know that Mistborn is not classified as Steampunk, but it definitely has that vibe.

    And like Angie said, move Archangel up on your list. The writing is amazing.

  • Leslie
    October 3, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    Great review! I’ve requested this from the library so it looks like I’ll be reading my first steampunk. Looking forward to it.

  • Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti « Janicu’s Book Blog
    April 30, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    […] but for some reason I had labelled it in my mind as not so intriguingΒ until I read a review at the Book Smugglers blogΒ (they gave it a 9 – “damn near perfection”). I put it on my books to read list at that […]

  • KMont
    February 21, 2011 at 10:45 am

    Dudes, I thought one of you might have reviewed this one. I read it and could not appreciate it. πŸ™ I had to come back here to see if I could get some insights to things that irked or confused me, but I think I’ll just have to chalk it up to a book not working for me! It’s too bad, I really, really wanted to love it. Gah, why can’t I love you, Clockwork Heart?

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