Octavia Leander is a healer, and a talented and blessed one at that. A graduate of Miss Percival’s school for the training of Medicians, those who can not only use herbs and other remedies to heal the sick, but draw upon the power of the Lady to do wondrous feats of healing, even wounds and conditions that threaten the victim with death. Octavia’s desire to use her talents, and an offer to help a village on the far end of the nation of Caskentia from her, leads her to board an airship for the long journey. On that ship, Leander faces intrigue, adventure, romance and danger, the latter especially in the person of the eponymous agent of the Queen, The Clockwork Dagger.
The Clockwork Dagger is the debut novel from Beth Cato.
Clerics and healers are relatively uncommon protagonists for fantasy fiction, even for female protagonists. Warrior types are extremely common. Magic wielders and rogues are bog-standard, too, for protagonists of this sort. Even scientists are more commonly found than a character with a profession such as Octavia’s. A character who is reluctant to employ violence, and whose ethos is devoted to healing, makes for a protagonist that makes me sit up and take notice immediately for the contrast. The author establishes Octavia’s preternatural ability and special connection to her Goddess early and does an excellent job in distinguishing her as someone and something special even among Medicians. This is an early clue to the reader that Octavia is someone much more important than she herself thinks she is, and it’s a tension and a threat that winds through the novel and helps propel the plot.
The author has a penchant for the “character who is more than they appear” and uses this throughout the novel to round out the cast. Not only Octavia, but a selection of her traveling companions aboard The Argus shows hidden depths, uncertain agendas, and deep secrets. These characters give Octavia’s voyage a very welcome “Murder on the Orient Express” sort of feel to her travels as she voyages southward upon it. The eponymous Clockwork Dagger gets the most development beyond Octavia, even as we stay in her point of view. I also liked Viola, a past-middle aged woman who is delightfully far more than she seems, too. The dialogue between all of these characters is a delight. And I would be remiss to not mention the gremlin, Leaf, that Octavia befriends. He’s more than he appears, too.
The worldbuilding, extending from that airship, is a fascinating, rich world with notes of steampunk and of magic. I was reminded of the theologically oriented fantasy fiction of Tim Akers in the depiction of a world with airships, firearms, active Gods, and moderate magic. There is also a sub rosa conflict between science and magic, too. Also, the Lady, as embodied and symbolized by a World Tree of high theological significance, invoked for me the more medieval world of Freya Robertson’s Heartwood. Beyond the magic and technology, the author sets up several strains of long-running political conflicts, both within and without the Kingdom. There is a definite sense to the deep history of these conflicts, going backward, and of course, extending forward through the novel, and beyond it. There are plenty of mystery and speculations about how and why things are for a reader to consider as the author reveals her world.
Too, there are plenty of set piece action pieces, for all that Octavia is not a combatant, with a couple of interesting allusions as well. For the most part, the writing for these, like Cato’s talent for description and dialogue, is well done. However, I think in a couple of these, the writing for the action sequences could have been blocked and described a bit better than they were. I hope with practice the author will be able to extend and branch her other talents for character, dialogue, and worldbuilding into this area and make her craft even stronger.
The Clockwork Dagger goes down like a fabulous piece of baklava — light puff filo dough pastry, tasty chopped nuts, and honeyed sweetness that all can come together only with excellent craftsmanship and care. The author has put enormous and not effortless work into the novel, and it shows on all levels. This is a novel that strongly manages to rise above its first novel flaws. The Clockwork Dagger’s ending leaves plenty of open threads for the forthcoming sequel, which I am definitely looking forward to reading.