Clockwork Menagerie by Karen Kincy

Clockwork Menagerie by Karen KincyIntermingling the fast-paced action of a spy thriller with solid character development against a background of clockwork mysticism, Kincy produces a story that will appeal to a broad range of speculative fiction readers.

Archmage Konstantin would like nothing more than to devote his time to studying the clockwork dragon Vienna has captured from Russia. However, his undeniable, and very illegal, mutual attraction to Captain Himmel leaves both his schedule and his notes in a mess. And no sooner has he convinced Himmel nothing can come of it, than Vienna assigns him as technical advisor to their ambassador to Russia; a role that involves taking extended passage on Himmel’s dirigible. Between Konstantin’s desires and his lack of political experience, the question isn’t whether he will embarrass himself but which social construct will collapse around him first.

The novella is set in a Europe politically and socially at the early 20th Century where complex clockwork (called technomancy) rather than combustion forms the backbone of military might. Parallel to pure clockwork, but banned by international convention, are other techniques that produce more efficient mechanisms.

While the extent of technomancy and its dark companion are revealed as the book progresses, it is not clear at the start (perhaps because this is a supporting volume to an existing series) why Konstantin is called a mage rather than an engineer. This somewhat blurs the line between acceptable machinery and not, potentially robbing Konstantin’s early suspicions of some of their impact.

However – possible nuances of engineering and magic aside – the story is a well-crafted example of a character’s knowledge and experience revealing a threat that their own superiors would rather continued discretely than ended publicly.

In parallel to the international politics, Kincy weaves the developing relationship between Konstantin and Himmel. Showing Konstantin’s mix of disgust and joy while writing the intimacy itself in the language of romance, she portrays the internal struggle of someone who doesn’t fit society’s model of normal without letting that in-world judgement become an objective assessment of sexuality itself.

Although the relationship flows naturally from the characters rather than being a salacious addition, Kincy does not hide the physical aspects of stolen moments of passion. As such, while the book is in nowise erotica, readers who prefer romance to be kisses and implication might find some scenes too graphic.

Konstantin is an interesting variant on the socially awkward scientist, shaped but not defined by his sexuality. His obvious intellect provides both successes and failures in international espionage, sometimes because directness catches others off guard and sometimes because he does the logical thing rather than the acceptable thing. This balance makes him both plausible and sympathetic.

The supporting cast are equally composed of plausible tensions: Himmel is the bluff military officer yet is also politically adept, and has reached his own unstable accommodation with his sexuality making him both support and obstacle to Konstantin’s well-being; the Ambassador is insightful yet supports the shallow veneer of international politics over the benefits of truth.

Overall, I enjoyed this novella greatly. I recommend it both to readers seeking steampunk driven by characters not technology, and those who enjoy a good thriller.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

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