T. Kingfisher’s Clockwork Boys follows a ragtag band of adventurers on a suicide mission: the Dowager, ruler of the unnamed city from which they hail, is sending them – three criminals and a sheltered scholar – to Anuket City, the source of the massive, murderous clockwork automatons ravaging the countryside and threatening war. A company of soldiers has been destroyed trying to make this journey, and all of the Dowager’s career spies in the city are dead. This journey is not a safe proposition.
Our party, then, consists of Slate, a forger and creative accountant; Brenner, an assassin who was once Slate’s lover; Caliban, a paladin who committed mass murder while possessed by a demon; and Learned Edmund, the aforementioned scholar and a dyed-in-the-wool misogynist.
Clockwork Boys isn’t, despite its title and cover art, steampunk; its setting is more the sort of cod-medieval society you’d encounter in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Kingfisher’s stated aim is to deconstruct the assumptions of such settings, particularly the RPG trope of the moody paladin, as she writes in her acknowledgements at the end of the novel. And, indeed, there are plenty of acts of subversion here: the fact that the party’s led by a woman with comparatively little martial skill; the depiction of the physical effects of a day’s riding on people who aren’t trained to it (spoiler: it’s quite painful); the general scurrilousness and disunity of the party as a whole.
It’s all reasonably entertaining, but it also feels somewhat recycled. Kingfisher says in her acknowledgements that she started writing it during NaNoWriMo in 2006, and it definitely reads like a NaNoWriMo novel: a magpie concoction of influences, ideas grabbed from everywhere in a mad rush to reach word count. The world doesn’t hang together terribly well; the narrative’s episodic, moving from set piece to set piece in a way that doesn’t feel purposefully planned. It doesn’t help that Clockwork Boys is not actually a full novel: it ends abruptly, leaving the narrative to be taken up by the sequel The Wonder Engine. (This is a practice that annoys me more than I can say. If you are selling me a novel, it needs to be a full work; I should be able to read and judge it standalone.)
Plus, well – the heroic fantasy tropes Kingfisher is writing about by and large aren’t mainstream any more, and in fact are so old-fashioned that the techniques used to undermine them have themselves become tropes (in particular the idea of criminals taking on heroic quests). Clockwork Boys is a reasonably fun read, but it’s not doing anything subversive or new, and there’s little to make it stand out from more immersive rogue quest novels like Chris Wooding’s Retribution Falls. My stance on it is, in a nutshell: if you do pick it up it’s okay; but there’s no compelling reason to pick it up when you could be reading something better.