RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: His Clockwork Canary by Beth Ciotta


Title: His Clockwork Canary
Author: Beth Ciotta
Publication Info: Signet June 2013
ISBN: 978-0451239990
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book His Clockwork Canary This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Syaffolee. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Paranormal Romance category.

The summary:

History is repeating itself.

For ambitious engineer Simon Darcy, winning Queen Victoria’s competition to recover lost inventions of historical significance is a matter of pride—and redemption. After all, it was Simon’s failed monorail project that left his family destitute, and winning the tournament would surely restore the Darcys’ reputation.

Simon sets his sights high, targeting no less than the infamous time-travel device that forever changed the world by transporting scientists, engineers, and artists from the twentieth century. The Mod technology was banned and supposedly destroyed, but Simon is sure he can re-create it.

His daring plan draws the attention of Willie G., the Clockwork Canary, London’s sensationalist reporter. Simon soon discovers that Willie is a male guise for Wilhemina Goodenough, the love of his youth, who left him jilted and bitter. He questions her motives even as he falls prey to her unique charm. As the attraction between the two reignites, Simon realizes that this vixen from his past has secrets that could be the key to his future…as long as he can put their history behind him.

And here is Syaffolee's review:

His Clockwork Canary is the second book in The Glorious Victorious Darcys series, but I don't think the books have to be read in order.  His Clockwork Canary takes place parallel to the first book, Her Sky Cowboy. This book is a mélange of tropes and genres: steampunk (which I really enjoy), time travel (which I really don't, with few exceptions), adventure, and romance. There isn't any actual time traveling in the narrative, but it is a significant part of the world building. Unfortunately, there's one huge paradox involved with the time traveling aspect that sat in my mind like the proverbial white elephant in the room. With this paradox, I felt that the rest of the world building and possibly one of the main characters could not even exist.  I could only resolve this paradox in my head if I pulled in outside assumptions. Anyways, more on that later.

On a purely romance standpoint, I enjoyed most of it despite the use of two tropes I am not overly fond of–cross-dressing and reunited lovers. Wilhelmina Goodenough has spent many years disguised as the male journalist Willie G., the Clockwork Canary. When she finally meets up with Simon Darcy again, after a broken elopement a decade earlier, there's mutual attraction and distrust on both sides. I enjoyed the tug-of-war between the two characters up until the point where the reason for their broken elopement was revealed. Beyond that point, the romance became flat and lopsided. It was as if the bullets that hit Willie at that turning point also punctured the romance and let all the tension out.  In the latter half of the story, the main worry is not whether or not Willie and Simon want to stay together but whether or not their pairing (between Simon who is a Vic–a 19th century person–and Willie who is a Freak with psychic powers–the descendant of a Vic and a Mod, a 20th century person) will be accepted by society.  The lopsided aspect of the romance stemmed from Willie's continued lack of trust with the blackmail issue which she did not reveal to Simon until almost at the end.

Aside from the blackmail/trust issue that I felt was resolved way too late in the narrative, Willie traced a far more interesting course in character development. While she started off as someone who hid what she was in order to survive in society, she eventually discovered that she was far happier being herself. It did not escape my notice that Willie's struggle for living as a Freak and fighting for equal rights in a highly discriminatory Victorian era mirrored many fights for equality in history and even today. I was glad that this aspect of the story didn't just pay lip service to the “punk” aspect of steampunk.

Simon's characterization, on the other hand, was a bit uneven. At first, he comes off as egotistical.  Sure, he wants to win the competition to save his family's fortunes. But that comes in second to his desire for public recognition as a genius engineer, and failing that, at least the rediscoverer of the time machine that his father's cousin originally designed. By the latter half of the book, that desire for public recognition had pretty much disappeared in favor of trying to convince Willie that they can be together despite society's censure and in protecting her from the hazards of her psychic powers which hold the key to finding that time device. The sudden shift in Simon's priorities gave me a bit of whiplash.

The most cartoonish character in the whole book is the villain. I didn't know whether to groan or laugh because he was totally WTFOMGBBQ.  In one of his first scenes, he infodumps like a desperate student rummaging through Wikipedia for a last minute report right after he does unmentionable things to a sexbot. Then he drags the sexbot with him to the hostile environs of Australia in order to find a scientist who may help him locate or build the time machine. Except for one meeting in the beginning, the villain never interacts with the main characters except to send threatening text messages in code. I felt that many of the villain's scenes were unnecessary as he mostly served as a comic foil with all of his screwups.

What prevented me from grading this lower was the adventure aspect of the novel which picked up the slack left by the romance in the second half. I never felt that the action lagged and I was quite engaged with the successive reveals for why some of the rebel time travelers wanted to hide their time travel device in the first place. The revelation of these secrets also put into light the motivations of Willie's relatives which force her to see her parents and brother differently.

The addition of time travel as an explanation for expedited technological advances in an alternate 19th century is definitely a unique approach I haven't seen before in steampunk–especially when it involves idealistic hippies from the 1960s. For the most part, I went with it but there was one piece of technology that did not seem to fit–the sexbot. I don't understand how such a sophisticated automaton (and hinted as a possible artificial intelligence) could be made in a world where even a computer has not been invented yet. The only explanation I could come up with was that the sexbot was there to highlight the villain's evilness through supposedly deviant sexual practices. My second nitpick: I had a problem with the description of the past and the future as different dimensions. Time itself can be a dimension but not different points in time. It's like saying London and Paris are different dimensions.

As for the elephant in the room, the time travel aspect introduces a paradox which really makes my head hurt when I think about it too much. The whole reason why the scientists and artists and pacifists from the 1960s traveled back to the 19th century was to alter history to prevent civil unrest and a possible nuclear war. But in radically changing the past, they've also changed the future–so shouldn't at least some of those time travelers have negated their own existence or at least started fading out like Marty McFly in Back to the Future when he screwed up his own past? I could only reconcile this paradox if I assumed that the 20th century time travelers jumped into the past of a parallel universe so they screwed up the past of that universe but not their own. But on second thought, maybe the term “dimension” isn't such a nitpicky mistake. In the science fiction genre, “dimension” can also mean “parallel universe” even though that's not technically correct.

I found His Clockwork Canary an entertaining read despite its flaws. While the romance, characterization, and world building faltered at some points, the adventure plot kept the story moving. The narrative was quite clever in dangling additional mysteries about secondary characters even as it brought the main story line to a satisfying close. I will definitely check out the next book in the series just to find out what happens to Simon's brother and all the other characters chasing after him.

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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    DonnaMarie says:

    There is a fairly well established theory of multiverse in which every action or decision we make creates another universe in which a different action or decision was taken. So theoretically, yes, you could travel back in time without destroying the possibility of your own birth because that timeline would continue on without you while your trip back in time created another parallel universe wherein you exist in the present without regard to whether you were born in that timeline….

    I need coffee….

    … There’s a reason I majored in social work not physics. It is waaaay to early in the morning for my brain to try and explain multiverse theory.

  2. 2
    Celia Marsh says:

    It may have been mentioned in one of the other books, or perhaps I just assumed it was the case (as I read SF) that there’s a dimensional difference between the two timelines—the future of the world of the books is not the same time the Mods came from.  I’m still not sure how that all works with the family member who went forward in time (or am I confusing my steampunk time travel novels?) but I assume that will be explained in the next book/s. (I mean, I guess he probably just went to his timeline’s future, but then again, if the time machine is also crossing dimensions, it could be either one without hurting the past or present.) 

    (I liked these books, but they were definitely in the B-/C+ range for me because they were missing something.  (or maybe had too much in them?))

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