[Review] Timekeeper, by Tara Sim [Timekeeper #1]

Title: Timekeeper (Timekeeper #1)
Author: Tara Sim
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 8th November 2016
Rating: ★★★★★

25760792Timekeeper, by Tara Sim, is a clockworky, period fantasy-mystery-romance-everything that mixes an investigative ‘whodunit’ element with that of myth, magic and mayhem, with the added exploration of everything from parental relationships to what, exactly, being human might mean.

Set in an alternate Victorian England (yay) where time is quite literally a force of power and must be harnessed through clock towers in order to function correctly and keep life flowing and moving as it must, Sim’s debut novel is a brilliant example of making myth and mystery merge with the burgeoning industry associated with steam/clockpunk to create a story that is completely addictive and rich.

Time was once controlled by Chronos, but after his death, time needed new, mortal guardians to ensure that all flowed and ebbed according to its natural order: The Mechanics. They can sense time, touch it and feel its strands and fibres as if it were fabric. They are its guardians, attending to the maintenance of the clocks across the world.

Danny Hart is one such mechanic—the best in his class and a natural prodigy; the youngest mechanic in the union—like his father before him. But Danny is particularly gifted, able to not only repair the towers with ease and a delicate, careful hand, but to feel and touch the very fabric of time itself in a way far deeper than his peers. Danny understands time.

Which is why, when an accident traps his father in a Stopped town, now for three years and counting, Danny is certain that if he could just be a part of the controversial construction of the new tower in Malden, that he’ll be able to save his father.

But with fears that Danny might not be up to the task, following on accident that could have cost him his life, Danny’s requests to work on the tower are gently refused by the Lead Mechanic. Before the accident, before he drew the sympathetic stares of his colleagues, there would have been no question as to whether he was fit for the job or not. In order to get the assignment to Maldon, Danny needs to repair his reputation and prove that he’s fine after the accident.

So what if he has nightmares, still, and the presence of so much of the clockwork that exploded and scarred him makes him break out in sweats? He can handle it—he has to. With this in mind, Danny sets himself to any assignment he’s given with determination, desperate to help his father.

Things begin to change, however, when Danny takes a job in Enfield.

Clock spirits don’t exist—not really. Every mechanic knows the stories, but they’re a myth, a fiction. Only, Danny might be forced to change that assertion when he meets Colton, the clock spirit of the Enfield tower. Filled with deep loneliness, Enfield’s clock spirit begins finding any way he can to draw the mechanics—to draw Danny—to the town. So much for Danny’s focus on work and saving his father… Before long, the two are drawn together and Danny’s visits to the tower have less to do with the clock and more the boy who powers it.

But when a similar incident to the one that almost killed Danny occurs and there’s no visible culprit or motive, things begin to take a sinister turn. With clock towers being attacked, maybe it’s only a matter of time before another town is Stopped. And perhaps Danny won’t be so lucky a second time.

It soon becomes clear that Danny must solve the mystery before something unthinkable happens and before long, there’s more at stake than just Danny’s father. With the help of Colton, a rival mechanic, and his best friend, Danny delves headlong into untangling the distorted threads to find the truth about what really happened to him—and to his father.

Timekeeper is an expertly-written debut that is both thrilling and enchanting. Sim has a talent for crafting real, feeling characters and capturing the subtle and nuanced realities of every emotion from loneliness to grief, as well as weaving realistic and deep relationships between the characters. This is always something I hone in on immediately: parental relationships. Sim writes a seamless strained relationship between Danny and his mother, as well as his absent father. Parents suck sometimes—whatever the reason—and Danny’s mother is no different.

Obviously, Timekeeper features a m/m romance. Sound all the bells and alarms for a realistically-written gay romance, because by gods, they’re rare enough and rarer still written well, without essentially resembling the shounen-ai/yaoi fanfics written by teenage girls after binging Junjou Romantica for three weeks. This isn’t a gay romance written for girls (as so many are: fight me, go on, do it), it’s just a boy-meets-boy kind of story that gets it right, not agonising over any ridiculous notions such as how do I write a gay romance?! (spoiler: the same way you write any goddamn romance).

Additionally, this isn’t a story about Danny being gay—it’s a story where Danny just so happens to be into boy-shaped people. This fact alone would likely made me give the book five million stars and recommend it, even if I hadn’t personally liked it. When we have queer SFF on the regular that just so happens to feature queer characters without being a story that centres entirely on their queerness, then I’ll shut up about it. Until then, I’ll say: I do not want queer fiction; I want fiction that happens to be queer.

And that’s precisely what Timekeeper is.

Timekeeper is also a brilliant story that makes Sim look like she’s been published for years, not, in fact, her debut novel. The world is richly-plotted and expertly conveyed, mixing her unique magic and myth effortlessly with the more modern setting of a Victorian England only slightly different from our own. Her prose is deep and magical, adding a touch of wonder to the manner of setting that would usually present as either high-society propriety or the nitty-gritty of the streets. Timekeeper is enthralling and delightful and in one book, Sim managed to both write a story that finds a natural end, at the same time as setting the stage for subsequent books to follow.

Needless to say I am highly anticipating more from Sim—both in the Timekeeper world and in whichever additional worlds Sim decides to explore. This book was bloody brilliant. Buy it.

Such Wicked Intent, by Kenneth Oppel [The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein #2]

Title: Such Wicked Intent
    (The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein #2)
Author: Kenneth Oppel
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication date: August 2nd 2012
Rating: 

Such-Wicked-Intent-UKFollowing how good This Dark Endeavour was, I literally jumped into Such Wicked Intent headlong. I devoured it in three nights, scarcely coming up for air. And right up until the end, except for a few concepts that I just didn’t roll with, it was an exciting and strong sequel to the first. Another delightfully gothic-inspired novel, Oppel picks up the story only a short time after the sudden death of Victor Frankenstein’s twin brother, Konrad. Victor is still grieving, but he’s also frustrated and maddened by his failure to successfully concoct the Elixir of Life. Whether his attempt at alchemy worked, he’ll never know—that answer died with Konrad.

Maybe that in itself is his answer? Victor is beginning to think so and thus the book opens with Victor overseeing the destruction of the material hidden away in the library in which he found so many secrets and delights. But that was then, and this is now. Sworn away from alchemy and the small sciences, Victor focusses himself on Elizabeth, his beautiful cousin. But of course, Elizabeth chose his brother and to try to woo her now would be wrong, wouldn’t it?

She certainly seems to think so and as if to make her point, she announces that she’s going to leave for a nunnery. Victor and even their friend Henry find the idea absurd, but Elizabeth seems set. But then Victor grows determined to find a way of bringing his brother back from the dead and suddenly he’s more concerned with finding a way how, with exploring more of the hidden crevices of the chateau, than to think about his cousin. When he happens across a strange object that leads to the construction of a device through which he’s certain his twin has spoken to him, Victor redoubles his efforts. After all, Konrad’s message is clear: raise me.

Victor sets out to do just that, with the reluctant help of Elizabeth, despite her religious protestations. Henry, too, is once again at Victor’s side as he embarks on yet another endeavour with dark dealings and heretical acts. But Victor is godless and cares little for Elizabeth’s suggestions of blasphemy. All he wants to do is see his twin again.

And when he discovers strange clues hidden in the painting of his ancestor, Wilhelm Frankenstein, he might just get that chance. One thing leads to another and soon, in possession of a strange liquid and an even stranger, macabre little pocket watch made from the skeleton of a tiny bird, Victor crosses a line that perhaps nobody ever should. Taking his cousin and friend with him, Victor delves into the dark history of the chateau. With the sudden discovery of a walled-off well that was previously hidden, leading to old carvings and something darker still, something seems to be stirring. There is something that watches, patient, beneath the very earth of Chateau Frankenstein and despite appearances, despite the sudden power and potential Victor uncovers, whatever has been sealed beneath the ground might have been best left well alone. Harmless as it may seem, Victor will soon discover the depth of this slumbering creature’s wicked intent.

Overall I enjoyed this, but there were elements that I either flat-out disliked, or found wanting. I was not prepared for the sudden appearance of a book-baby (not a baby made of books; a baby in a book, namely this one). I do not like babies or children in my fiction. Nope. Never. Nyet. I won’t reveal the whys or hows, but a book baby takes up considerable real estate in this book and I did not like it. At all. It’s one of the reasons the book received a three-star rating.

Don’t throw babies at me! Yuck and ew. YA + babies? No-way-no-how.

Furthermore, the book dragged in places and the end was the weakest part of all. I did like how the very final paragraphs sow the seeds of Victor’s fascination with electricity and the power it contains, but the chapters preceding were awkward and seemed to only demonstrate that Oppel’s strength does not lie within action or activity, rather in suspense. The finale was messy, cluttered and almost impossible to track or imagine. If you’re going to have monsters, make sure you know what they look like; make sure to tell, to show the reader what they look like. Otherwise we end up with a jumble of something that we can’t quite follow. It made the climax of the book fall flat on its face. I was very disappointed.

But putting the book-baby and the terrible end aside, the way in which Such Wicked Intent was handled was excellent. The change of character throughout was explained at the end by acceptable plot, and despite the characters, at times, seeming like whinier versions of themselves, it did fall neatly in place at the close.3-star copy

However, I would have liked Elizabeth to remain the strong girl she was, instead of suddenly changing as much she did. She became irritating and awkward and didn’t seem to mesh well, even with the liberties taken with her personality and the Plot Reason behind it. I just… she was annoying, where she wasn’t before. And I mean whiny, irritating, kind of annoying. Not good. She seemed to have lost all her common sense.

Generally this was a decent enough book, with a decent enough plot and although the end did let it down, it was enjoyable, atmospheric and compelling enough that I wanted to read on despite the annoyances. Though I really, really hated the book-baby.

Zenn Scarlett Blog Tour: Guest post – Identity in SFF

As part of the Zenn Scarlett blog tour, I’m genuinely thrilled to have author Christian Schoon talking about Identity in SFF, given just how much I loved Zenn Scarlett and just how big a deal I’m hoping this YA science fiction adventure will be.  -Leo

First off, thanks to Leo for being part of the Zenn Scarlett blog tour and for giving me the chance to spend a little time here with his readers. Much appreciated!

ZennScarlettSo: identity in SFF and the role of the female protagonist. What a fascinating subject, not only in the worlds of speculative fiction, but across the entire spectrum of the current literary and entertainment environment. At one end of the YA SFF spectrum, we’ve got Twilight-style narratives (I’m talking about the first book here): the needy heroine, heavy inward-directed angst, magnetically drawn to the dreamy but distant, mysterious male interest. And at the other end, the Hunger Games girls, externally oriented, competent, focused, less interested in tortured, dewy-eyed boys than in living until the end of the book. And, of course, a range of titles spanning the extremes that combine characteristics of both. Disney’s Brave comes to mind, where Merida’s journey leads her to combining traits from both ends of the continuum by movie’s end. My own heroine, Zenn, falls well toward the Katness side of things, but with elements of Brave’s heroine in learning to take responsibility for her actions.

Invoking the name Disney, naturally, brings us to the much-discussed Princess/Tomboy divide in literature and film. And, as mentioned, there are plenty of books and films that tilt pretty convincingly to one or the other extreme of this dichotomy; in the Disney vein, think of the poles apart-ness of the protagonists in Snow White vs Snow White and the Huntsman.  But I’m glad to say that more and more, we’re seeing storylines that bridge this expanse. Hermione-OOTP-hermione-granger-1354673-428-285So, you can have a Hermione who’s brilliant, but not so Ivory Tower that Ron can’t aspire to meeting her down on level ground. Or, someone like Pullman’s Lyra, who is total tomboy and not above a bit of manipulation, but who still displays a sensitivity to the emotional aspects of her life.

As for Zenn, her past experiences have directed her down a path that emphasizes both the necessity and desirability of looking at the world with a decidedly analytic mind. She also grows up with a fearlessness regarding physical danger coupled with a deliberate, built-in reserve when it comes to emotional peril.  The people she’s counted on in her life are now absent. Her reaction to this isn’t to find a guy who can replace them, or someone comfort and protect her. Instead, she chooses to “cowboy up,” thicken her psychological armor and get on with pursuing the dream that drives and empowers her: to survive her novice year of training and continue on to become an exovet like her mother. In the novel, this manifests in a variety of ways. You don’t wear a slinky evening dress when making the rounds of the cloister’s pens and pastures to treat alien animal patients. And a sexy, midriff-baring look that shows off your tats isn’t going to cut it when you’re harnessed up and climbing onto the snout of an 80-foot whalehound to conduct a medical procedure. Zenn wears hand-me-down coveralls and spends less time worrying about her appearance than whether her veterinary backpack is stocked with the equipment and meds she’ll need to accomplish that day’s chores.When Liam Tucker, a local towner boy, expresses pretty obvious interest in her, Zenn’s first reaction isn’t to be instantly mesmerized and all “Gee, a guy likes ME! And he’s so cool and bad-but-in-a-good-way!” — instead it’s “This is odd and distracting and I don’t have the luxury of trying to figure out what this means right now because I have end-of-term tests to pass.”  In fairness, it needs to be mentioned that Zenn’s armor isn’t seamless; there are gaps in her mental sheathing and Liam, while no sparkly, archetypal dreamboat, is no fool. He understands how to get through to Zenn and will give it his best shot. Will it work? That’d be telling. But it’s safe to say it doesn’t turn out exactly how one might expect.

As for why the heroine of my book is reasonably-bad-ass but-in-my-humble-opinion-still-credibly female instead of male, it’s because that’s how Zenn presented herself to me when I had the first “ah ha!” moment of realizing I had a story to write. From that point on, this resourceful, no-fears, independent character was female in my mind. Plus, our own veterinarian, who became a good friend of ours here on the farm, is an amazing woman who is awesome and strong-willed and super-confident and wrestles giant pythons, so… there’s that.

In the final analysis, Zenn is simply the kind of protagonist that my story required, and she told me this in no uncertain terms right from the start of the writing process. And, I’m very pleased to note: powerful, skilled, self-sufficient female characters like Zenn are becoming increasingly common in the stories that inspire us, bind us together as a culture, and inform the identities that we construct for ourselves and see in others.

AUTHOR PIC AS SMALL JPG 1 INCHBorn in the American Midwest, Christian started his writing career in earnest as an in-house writer at the Walt Disney Company in Burbank, California. He then became a freelance writer working for various film, home video and animation studios in Los Angeles. After moving from LA to a farmstead in Iowa several years ago, he continues to freelance and also now helps re-hab wildlife and foster abused/neglected horses.  He acquired his amateur-vet knowledge, and much of his inspiration for the Zenn Scarlett series of novels, as he learned about – and received an education from – these remarkable animals.

You can find Christian on Goodreads, Twitter and over on his own site, as well as the Strange Chemistry siteZenn Scarlett releases today in the US and Canada in print, worldwide on eBook and in the UK on 2nd May (2013, unless you’re in a time-loop. If you are… good luck!)

The Demon’s Lexicon, Sarah Rees Brennan

  • TITLE: The Demon’s Lexicon
  • AUTHOR: Sarah Rees Brennan
  • PUBLISHER: Simon and Schuster Children’s Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE: June 2009
  • RATING: ★★★★

demons-lexicon-coverI hunted down this book when searching for YA fantasy with male protagonists. I’ve nothing against female leads (sometimes, even with a male protagonist, the women in the cast outshine them and become my favourites) but after the sixth book, a guy wants to read about “himself” for a while.

The Demon’s Lexicon sold me on the blurb, but the cover is fairly awesome, too. There’s very little I didn’t like about this book and overall it was new and refreshing. Nick and his brother Alan are always on the run. Their mum is mad: she won’t even look at Nick, much less talk to him. Still, Alan insists they bring her along when she’s the reason they’re running. The reason dad was killed and the reason they can’t have a normal life.

When the magicians find them Nick expects it to be just like always: kill the magician, run away, start again. But this time it’s different. And when the girl he’s somehow found time to crush on and her little brother show up and glimpse their strange, dangerous world, he doesn’t just send them packing like Nick wants. Mae and Jamie enter their lives needing help, help Nick doesn’t want to give. But Alan does and Alan was always the kind one. Without much of a choice, Nick agrees to help Alan help them.

But it’s going to be harder to help Jamie and Mae than either of them expected. Jamie has a third tier mark and he’s going to die.

Alan knows what happens with third tier marks and still be insists on trying to help. Nick is irritated but there’s something else going on with Alan, something odd. Does it have something to do with the Christmas he spent away? Nick isn’t sure but he wants to find out. Nick and Alan’s world is a dark and alien one to anything that Jamie and Mae have ever experienced, filled with demons and magicians and magical markets. Whether Nick likes it or not, Mae and Jamie are there to stay.

The world of the Demon’s Lexicon is a dark and sinister one filled with excitement, intrigue and new takes on old ideas of demon summoning and magic. Here, the magicians are the bad guys and Nick and his brother are just trying to survive. But is that the case? There are too many things Nick realises he doesn’t understand–things that he is sure used to make sense–for him to really know what’s going on.

His mother has always hated him, but why? Does it have something to do with the fact that Nick can only summon two demons whilst the other dancers at the market can summon more? Why does his mother scream when he comes near and why did their father really have to die defending them?

But it’s more than that, isn’t it?

The more Nick spends time with Alan and his tag-along friends, the more it becomes apparent that it’s Nick who isn’t normal. He doesn’t feel things the same way, see things the same way, or act the same way as anyone he has ever known. Sometimes he wants the magicians to come and take mum and whatever talisman she stole away forever, but Alan wouldn’t like that. Just like Alan wouldn’t like seeing Mae upset if Jamie died. Nick doesn’t understand, of course, but they are brothers, so that’s that.

The story of The Demon’s Lexicon is very tightly woven and intricate and interesting from the very first page. The characters are likeable and push the story forwards effortlessly. You care about these characters and are eager to see where the story will take them.

Nick is what I generally call the Red Ranger type: the one in anime that will wear a lot of red and be reckless. The strong guy; the hero. Usually it’s a character I turn right off to, especially with the bookish, intelligent more-brains-than-muscles Alan to balance him out and draw my attention more. However, there’s simply more to Nick than his lack of empathy, his strength and his temper–and it’s all part of the story. For once, we have a brutish jock who is as he is for a reason–and it is a damn good reason at that.

I enjoyed reading about siblings. When I read Julianna Scott’s The Holders I found myself disappointed that Ryland was so much younger than Becca. I felt I didn’t really get to explore a sibling relationship–more that of a younger caregiver with her little brother. It never reads the same if there isn’t a smaller age gap, I find. Hence why here, with Nick and Alan, I enjoyed their rapport and watching as their relationship developed on the page.

I went into this book expecting something “good”; I read something very good. The action gets started almost immediately and never lets up. Usually, I like space and time to breathe in which I learn the characters and see who they are. This doesn’t really happen in The Demon’s Lexicon but the book isn’t any weaker for it. It works for the story to keep a constant pace.

This was a good YA urban fantasy. I’ve not read the subsequent books, but I am intrigued. Not enough to hurl myself headlong into the next book, but it’s definitely marked on my TBR pile and will get a decent look-in.

As a YA book this is excellent; as an urban fantasy, it is all the more so, because it is different. The world is rich and clearly imagined and draws the reader in whilst the plot hurtles towards a very surprising yet satisfying and wholly exciting conclusion.

★ ★ ★ ★