Tuesday Reviews Day: The Clockwork Dynasty, Daniel H. Wilson

A heart made from various gears and clockwork parts adorns the cover of Wilson's novel

Detail shot of The Clockwork Dynasty‘s cover art

Like last week’s book, this week’s feature touches on more than a few of my interests. Part history, part science fiction, part steampunk and part futurism, Daniel H. Wilson‘s latest novel is a centuries-spanning tapestry that is almost unbelievably moving. And while it wasn’t perfect, it was entirely worth the read.

June Stefanov wears a necklace everywhere she goes. Hanging from it is a heavy piece of metal, marked with symbols that mean nothing to her. But the metal itself means everything. Her grandfather found it as a very young man at the Battle of Stalingrad, a souvenir of his encounter with a guardian angel, he says.

Her grandfather is gone now, but his knack for machinery, his interest in history, and his obsession with the angel from Stalingrad remain, a part of June’s life forever. June has made a career out of these heirlooms from her grandfather, traveling the world to research and catalog automata. Never exactly an easy job, she finds herself in more danger than usual when she discovers the automata still exist — and they are at war.


Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, if that franchise were tinged by more than a little steampunk. June is a no-nonsense woman with a wide set of skills and isn’t bad under pressure, but she isn’t a superhero; she gets hurt, she makes mistakes, and in one scene has a panic attack. And let’s discuss that panic attack for a moment: I suffer from them myself, often triggered by the very thing that sets off June’s attack, and this is one of the best depictions in fiction I’ve come across. It’s not judgmental or patronizing, it just is. And it’s nice to see a character as physically and emotionally strong as June struggle through something like this, especially without being undermined for it.

But where Wilson’s writing truly stands out is the pacing. Most books like this, with all their action-adventure-war-violence-etc., just blaze through the plot and leave the reader breathless, sometimes wondering how the book is over already. But Wilson drives the story expertly, with the pacing of every scene perfectly matching the action. Battles were choreographed so well it was hard to imagine Wilson didn’t have someone act them out as reference; emotional conversations were heavy and slower but didn’t feel drawn-out. And in my favorite such scene, one near the end that I can’t discuss too much without spoilers, Wilson’s writing seemed to move in slow-motion. I was literally holding my breath.

As always, though, I could have done without the scenes of sexual violence, of which there are two I can recall. They are blessedly short, but I can never find enough justification for them in any story to simply shrug them off. Additionally, each chapter shifts in both time/space and POV, so it may be difficult at first to keep track of who’s talking and where they are, but Wilson gives each speaking character a very clear personality and perspective, so it will get more comfortable as you read through. (A note: I don’t personally find this bothersome, but I know everyone has their preferences.)


How I found it: Fiction Twitter
Genre: Historical Fiction, Science Fiction, Steampunk, Fantasy
Content warnings: Physical violence (graphic), sexual violence (mild)
Does it pass the Bechdel test? No
Is it a standalone? Yes
So what worked? Character development, pacing, point-of-view, worldbuilding
What didn’t work? Could’ve done without the sexual violence, tbh

Overall: I really enjoyed The Clockwork Dynasty. I saw some reviews that weren’t keen on the ending because it isn’t exactly a tidy bow, but I liked that about it. It was an enjoyable read and a bit of a departure from what I’ve read lately. I think it’s great for STEM-minded readers, but it also has a beauty and art about it that makes it accessible for readers who (like me) aren’t the most technical-oriented of people. It may be a bit much for readers on the younger end of the YA demographic, but I think high school and up would easily find something to appreciate in this novel.


Have you read any of Daniel H Wilson’s works? Do you have any recommendations for what I should read next week? Drop me a comment below or find me on Twitter!


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