I enjoyed 'The Clockwork Dagger", Beth Cato's first adventure for medician Octavia Leander, a great deal, but felt that it drew a little too much on its most obvious influence and ended a little abruptly. This second half to Octavia's story, which is firmly ended after two books, takes a few chapters to find its feet but then really finds them, blistering through to a strong conclusion with a great deal of panache.
I read the first book relatively quickly, wanting to know how it would progress, but I didn't find it difficult to put it down so I could sleep. Once I got my teeth into 'The Clockwork Crown', I was hooked and read the second half in a single sitting, through to OMG o'clock in the morning.
With many secrets revealed by the end of the first book, everyone involved is acutely aware of where they stand when the second gets moving and we're well framed for the story to come.
Octavia is firmly on the run, both from agents of the Caskentian crown and their Waster foes in the Dallows, but Alonzo Garret is just as firmly on the run with her, no longer a Clockwork Dagger because of his choice to put her safety before his duties as a spy and killer. With the powers of two nations arrayed against them, they head south to a third, his home country, hoping to find some downtime to regroup and do some much needed research on the Lady, her Tree and what the bigger story around them really is. However, adventure and danger are never far away and they're inevitably back off and running again, but rarely in the ways we might expect.
Everything about 'The Clockwork Crown' feels stronger and more assured than in the previous book, because Cato's writing is stronger and more assured. While the first book was capably constructed, it felt constructed with the progression of the leads through a set of cliffhangers paramount and supporting characters there to allow that to happen. Here, the story is far more fluid, going wherever it must rather than merely to the next point of peril.
While I enjoyed the characters in 'The Clockwork Dagger', the leads have found direction here and the supporting characters their own real places in the bigger story too.
Octavia has grown massively as a character between the first and second books, though she's struggling with the similar growth of her abilities as a magical healer. Given that her talents, which memorably allow her to hear the pain of those around her in musical form, were trouble for her in built up areas even at the start of her story, but their enhancement becomes a downright danger as they arrive in Tamarania. She learns a lot in the south, about who she is and what role she is to play in the world. We learn with her and are thankful.
Alonzo Garret ran dangerously close to being a romantic dream in the first book, but he grows here too and their connection grows as well while successfully avoiding overt sentimentality. It's telling that, while he gets a few occasions to strut his stuff as a tough cookie, not least in an outrageous robotic tournament to the death, he clearly plays second fiddle to Octavia, even when protecting her. While she was never just a damsel in distress, that's a welcome reversal of their roles.
Other characters gain welcome depth too, whether expanded from their roles in the first book or introduced in this one. They each have a natural place in this story, even the ones that I didn't see coming. Tatiana Garret, the precocious ten year old sister of Alonzo, is a scenestealing star, but she's only one of a wide variety of new faces, including Tamaranian kingpin, Balthazar Cody; Viola Stout's obnoxious son, Devin; and others whom I can't mention without venturing into spoiler territory.
In fact I can't mention quite a lot, because you deserve to discover these characters and progressions yourself. One key progression is telegraphed a little early, meaning that it's nowhere near as surprising to us as it is to the characters when it becomes too overt to ignore, but others are sprung magnificently upon us and the characters both. I'd imagined certain scenes in this book even while finishing up the first one, but I was happily surprised when they turned out to be nothing like I expected.
In fact, my biggest mistake was to imagine this as a series. 'The Clockwork Dagger' often felt like a long introduction to characters who only found their feet during the finalé. With a whole world ready to be unveiled, I expected a host of future books to flesh out the map and give the characters room enough to breathe and grow. 'The Clockwork Crown' only hints at the wider map but still wraps up Octavia's story with comfort and style as a firm duology.
It would be possible for Cato to write further books in this world, but they would be new stories. Just as the first book was a beginning, this is very much an ending and it's strong enough to deserve not to become just a chapter in the middle.
The good news is that, while this may be the end to Octavia's story, it's surely not the end to Cato's writing. I can see 'The Clockwork Dagger' being remembered as her first book, an achievement to be proud of but mostly for being the first with her name on the front. 'The Clockwork Crown' will have a lot more resonance, marking the point where she become comfortable with her writing and able to become the conduit for a story inside her to flow onto the page.
Here's to this story not being the last, because I'm eager to see what Beth Cato will do next. It's wonderful to watch an author find her voice, but it's even better to read what that voice has to say. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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