I’m in a weird position. I’m tired of Steampunk, and yet if I say that word to most kids that walk into my library they’ll give me a blank stare followed by an immediate, “What’s Steampunk?” I’d explain to them that it’s this strange amalgamation of historical fiction plus futuristic gear-based clockwork technology but I know that this would not cause the blank stares to cease. They’d simply grow blanker. I’m tired of Steampunk, you see, but even then I have a confession to make. I’m only really tired of hearing about it. I’m tired of being told it’s the next big thing and that we should all be reading it. And yet . . . a good novel that involves clockwork and gears is right up my alley. Particularly when the writing is so good that you’d happily read the whole thing even if there weren’t some gearlike mechanical whoozitz element to the tale. It took a while, but I started hearing some low buzz surrounding debut author Matthew Kirby’s novel The Clockwork Three. Dividing his narrative between three different characters, the book has more action, adventure, heart, music, good food, natural beauty, and strange underworld dealings than you could ever hope to find. From proto-robots to golems and séances, it also manages to be packed with exciting elements without ever feeling overdone.
Three kids discover three different secrets that may change their lives forever. In a seaside city where rich and poor are sharply divided, Giuseppe the Italian street busker discovers a green violin that may be the secret to his escape from this dirty old city back to his home across the ocean. Hannah, in turn, discovers in the hotel where she works to support her ailing father and family, that one of its old residents once had a treasure, long since lost. And Frederick, the clockworker’s apprentice discovers the existence of a mechanical head that may be just what he needs to complete the mechanical body he’s been building in secret. Slowly but surely the needs and wants of these three characters begin to intertwine, until it becomes clear that none of them will get what they desire unless they take a chance and trust one another, come what may.
The city where this book takes place is interesting. We know that it’s in America, and that kids like Giuseppe have come to it from Italy. Beyond that, however, it has all the characteristics of a made up metropolis. Too small to be New York, it’s nonetheless on the ocean, and is a large bustling area with rich and poor neighborhoods. There’s also a large park somewhere near the center. This all sounds like New York, but Kirby has freed himself up with the option of giving his city new street names, new park names, and new buildings to populate. Sure there are museums, but there are also Guilds of clockworkers and organized street urchins who busk for their bread. To the author’s credit, there was only a very brief moment at the story’s start when I thought that maybe this book was set in NYC. It passed quickly. As for the era of the book, it’s definitely during a kind of early Industrialized era, but no definitive year.
The trick to the book (and it couldn’t have been easy) was to have three kids with three different narratives and (most importantly of all) three different points in time all intersect at just the right moments. What happens to be a day for Giuseppe might be three days for Hannah or a month for Frederick. So Mr. Kirby has to manage to even out the time, to a certain extent. He’s hemmed in by the fact that if he leaves Frederick in a dire situation and then cuts to Hannah, she’s going to have to not experience so much time that the reader is thrown off when they return to Frederick once again. And while he’s doing all of that, Kirby has to also make these three kids like one another. He doesn’t make it easy on himself by allowing them to be little charmers, either. Frederick is uppity and cold at the start, a front that slowly melts as the other two get to know him. Giuseppe and Hannah are both pretty instantly likable, so that takes a little pressure off of the author. If all three were prickly pears we’d have a hard time reading about them.
That’s one difficulty the author must overcome. Another is the whole Clockwork Man aspect. About 296 pages into the story or so the book suddenly turns from a pretty piece of fairly realistic fiction (albeit in a fantasy world) into an out and out fantasy or science fiction piece (you can determine for yourself which of the two designations fit better). This marks a bit of a shift in tone, though fortunately we’ve had enough small surreal moments before now to go along with what the author is doing. In a more herky-jerky novel this moment would change everything and the book would end up being something like Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord. Which is to say, a fun rollicking adventure that suddenly produces a weird fantasy element and ends up weakening the novel as a whole. The Clockwork Three avoids this trap, resulting in a stronger book.
When I talk with kids about the books they read, they’ll sometimes point out to me whether or not a book has “a one on its spine”. I run a bookgroup for kids and though they’re huge series readers, they actually do not much care for the idea of new series. They speak with distain of books that don’t stand alone and have to have more than one book in their series to be interesting. When I get them to read The Clockwork Three I’ll show them the lack of a spinal “one” and they will coolly approve. That said, I’m certain that Kirby could write a sequel to this book if he so desired. The ending is deeply satisfying, with at least two of the characters in positions that are still not where they would have hoped to be at the story’s beginning, yet are still satisfying. The third kid, however, appears to be off to a life of grand adventure and possible danger. This kid, I want to follow, wherever they may go. So while Kirby doesn’t commit himself to future tales, neither does he completely shut the door.
As it stands, The Clockwork Three satisfies the needs of any kid looking for adventure, really awful villains (each child has at least one that they must personally confront), and the details that distinguish a book from being merely okay to being downright great. A lovely debut and an author clearly worth watching in the future.
On shelves now.
Source: Review from galley sent from publisher.
Notes on the Jacket: Rarely have I seen a debut author have so many different jackets for a single book at a single time. Here is the original cover of the galley:
Here is the cover sported in the U.K.
And here is what I can only imagine is a fan cover of the same book.
- The Unread Reader
- Fluidity of Time
- Dearest Dreams
- Librarian’s Quest
- It’s All About Books
- Night Writer
- Download a chapter to get a feel for the book here.
- Scholastic even wrote out a booktalk for the title.
Of course it had its own book trailer (which for some reason reminds me of Beetlejuice):
And here is the author Matthew Kirby himself talking about the book: