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Monday, January 30, 2012


Author:  Steven Harper (pseudonym for Steven Piziks)
Plot Type:  Steampunk
Ratings:  V4; S3; H2
Publisher and Titles: Roc
        The Doomsday Vault (11/2011)
        The Impossible Cube (5/2012)
        The Dragon Men (11/2012)
        The Havoc Machine (5/2013)

     This post was revised and updated on 1/10/13 to include a review of the second book in the series: The Impossible Cube. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the series and a review of book 1: 

          BOOK 2:  The Impossible Cube          
     If you have not read book 1, the author includes a "story-so-far" introduction that hits the high points of that plot.  

     As book 2 opens, Alice and Gavin are on the runactually, on the flyfrom Third Ward agents Philippa, Simon, and Glenda, who are furious that Alice let loose the Clockwork cure in England, thus stopping the Clockwork Plague, closing down the Third Ward and leaving them joblessnot to mention the fact that they will no longer have access to the clockworkers who have keep England supplied with multitudes of clever mechanical weapons. Alice and Gavin are traveling with Dr. Cleff (the crazed clockworker who invented the Impossible Cube in the previous book), Feng (son of the Chinese ambassador), Kemp (Alice's mechanical valet), and Alice's menagerie of mechanicals (small, metal, mechanized devices that follow her commands). Gavin's clockwork symptoms are getting worse and worse, and Alice believes that the only way to save him is to go to China and beg the Chinese clockworkers (aka dragon men) to develop a cure. 

     The romantic relationship between Alice and Gavin has developed to the stage where they are now engaged, but are putting off marriage until Gavin can be cured. The situation becomes strained as Gavin occasionally goes into a clockwork fugue state during which he is uncharacteristically rude and arrogant to Alice, treating her like a lowly worker. She knows that he can't help it and isn't even aware that he's doing it, but his behavior still hurts her feelings. On the other hand, Gavin is impatient with Alice because she insists on spending much of her time curing clockwork plague victims in every city they visit. Being touched with her blood cures most of them immediatelybut, unfortunately, it doesn't work for Gavin. Almost every time Alice stops to heal someone, she puts their group in danger.

     The early part of the book consists of the good guys flying away and the bad guys catching up with them. Each time, a battle ensues and the good guys take off again. Eventually, Gavin leads the group to Luxembourg, where they hide themselves in a circus owned by Gavin's old friend, Dodd. When the circus train reaches Kiev, Alice and her group find a powerful enemy who is even more dangerous than Philippa and her cohorts. 

     Kiev is considered to be the original source of the clockwork plague, and it has more than its share of clockworkers, mostly belonging to the Gonta and Zalizniak families, who have joined together for strength. The clockworkers are kidnapping children from the streets of Kiev and turning them into clockworkersvirtual slaves to the two families. The climactic ending battle brings the Impossible Cube back into play as the primary and secondary characters on both sides nearly destroy the city of Kiev. 

     The bare bones of this plot include one or two meaty relationship scenes, and a few nice action sequences, but compared to the complex plot we saw in book 1, this story is more famine than feast. The lack of action is at its lowest level during the too-frequent scenes in which the Gavin and Dr. Cleff go into their clockwork mode and explain (at great length and in highly technical language) the how and why of their various projects and schemes. Frankly, I found myself skimming past those paragraphs/pages. Another problem is that Alice and her team are supposed to be quite intelligent. So...why, then, do they keep getting caught in various traps, and why don't they ever have any contingency plans? A final detriment is that Philippa's sudden change of behavior in the final scene doesn't ring true. From the very beginning of the book, she has been driven by her sense of betrayal and her daddy-related emotions  to capture or kill Alice and Gavin, no matter what the cost. Her almost instantaneous change of heart strikes a definite false note. For me, this book just doesn't live up to the promise of book 1. It actually seems more like a "bridge" novela set up for the confrontation with the dragon men in book 3.

     This is a full-on steampunk series with all of the requisite bells and whistlesall of them steam-powered and gear-driven, of course. Set in mid-Victorian London, the story depicts a population overrun by the clockwork plague, an insidious disease that either kills its victims or turns them into mindless zombie-like creatures. Some plague victimsa very small percentagebeat the odds. Instead of dying or becoming zombies, they morph into clockworkerscreative geniuses who invent impossible machines and automatons that are frequently related in some way to music. Unfortunately, their creativity is heavily tinged with madness, which eventually overcomes their minds and drives them totally insane. The British government takes advantage of the clockworkers' brief periods of genius by locking them up and using their inventions for "the good of the empire." A mysterious organization called the Third Ward has been given the task of dealing with the clockworkers in the Western world. Headed by the militaristic Philippa, the Third Ward is a body of highly trained warriors who use a variety of powerful, state-of-the-art weapons to capture and imprison clockworkers. China has its own set of clockworkers (called Dragon Men). The two countries are in a constant competition to stay one step ahead of the other in technological inventions, including weapons, so they are both anxious to wring every idea they can from their captive inventors.

     In London's complex social world, the rigid class system is in full swing, with the lower classes succumbing to the plague in large numbers as they scrabble out a meager living while the nobility uses its wealth to maintain security systems, manned by both humans and automatons, to keep the infectious zombies at bay. Women have two choices in this world. They can join the Ad Hoc Womenwho wear trousers, vote, and are looked down upon by patrician societyor they can live as respected ladies with no real civil rights at all. 

     Here is how Harper describes the creation of the series: 
     "It started with the THX noise. It's that weird swoopy noise they used to play at the beginning of movies. My son Aran is autistic, and the noise causes him active pain. (Autists often process physical sensations differently than neuro-typical people do.) As a result, I looked into the science of sound, and I learned how the square root of two rules music with an iron and irrational fist.
      And then characters started forming. A teenaged boy with perfect pitch who lives on an airship which is attacked by pirates. A young woman who owns a mechanical cat and desperately wants to re-enter a society that snubbed her.
     It came together. Dirigibles. Glass cutlasses. Automatons. Mad scientists. A world ravaged by plague and zombies. And behind it all, a single, impossible, irrational number."

     The author has created a web site for the CLOCKWORK EMPIRE. Click HERE to go to that site.

          BOOK 1:  The Doomsday Vault          
     As the first book opens, Alice B. Michaels, an impoverished young noblewomandaughter of a baronhas an encounter with a mob of zombies on the streets of London and gets involved with some Third Ward warriors as they sweep in to get the situation under control. Alice is considered by society to be a spinster because she is twenty-two years old and has no husband and no family money. Her fiancé died of the clockwork plague several years ago, leaving her without any romantic prospects. Alice's mother and brother also died of the plague, and her father was left crippled, unable to walk. Alice's Aunt Edwina turned her back on the family and went to live on her isolated estate, communicating only through the automatons she sends as gifts to Alice, all of them signed, "Love, Aunt Edwina." Alice feels responsible for her family's plague infection and believes that she must maintain the family title by encouraging the courtship of the rich and powerful Norbert Williamson, who wants to marry her for her skill at building and repairing automatons and because their first-born son would inherit the title of Baron. Norbert is a real piece of work, with questionable business practices that would ruin him if society were to discover them. A strange inheritance from Aunt Edwina sets Alice off on some independent adventures that free her temporarily (and perhaps permanently) from Norbert's grasp.

     In the meantime, a young American airman, Gavin Ennock, finds his life irrevocably changed when his airship is captured by pirates and he escapes to roam the streets of London, earning a pittance by busking in Hyde Park. Gavin is blessed with an angelic voice and an extraordinary talent for playing his violin. Soon, though, Gavin is kidnapped by a mysterious woman and placed in solitary imprisonment in a tower with only with his violin for company. The plot follows Alice and Gavin as both try to make the best of the difficult situations in which they find themselves. Gavin yearns to be free so that he can continue his life in the air, while Alice dreams of a life that would free her father from his debts and thus allow her to refuse Norbert's marriage offer. Her primary interest is in technology, specifically automatons.

     As the story advances, Alice and Gavin meet and are mutually attracted, although they both realize that a romance between them would never work. After all, he's an American commoner and she's a Baron's daughter. When a mysterious masked clockworker begins to shadow and taunt Alice, the action ratchets up, until eventually the romantic leads get themselves involved in capturing gigantic automatons, freeing an imprisoned clockworker, and leading a rebellion. The most outrageous automaton is in the shape of a giant tree.   

     This is a fresh and inventive story, with interesting characters and lots of steampunk-inspired action, including airship pirate battles, political intrigue, wild weaponry, automatons of every size, shape, and ability—and always plenty of clockwork zombies! Particularly entertaining are Alice's two automaton sidekicks: Kemp, her persnickety manservant, and Click, her clever cat. Alice also uses a bevy of tiny flying automatons to lace up her corsets and perform other housemaid duties. Those scenes put me in mind of the Disney Cinderella movie in which Cinderella receives personal assistance from a flock of tiny bluebirds and some mice. Click HERE to read chapter one of The Doomsday Vault.

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