The Wonder Engine

by T. Kingfisher

Cover image

Series: The Clocktaur War #2
Publisher: Red Wombat Tea Company
Copyright: 2018
ASIN: B079KX1XFD
Format: Kindle
Pages: 318

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

Buy at Powell's Books

The Wonder Engine is the second half of The Clocktaur War duology, following Clockwork Boys. Although there is a substantial transition between the books, I think it's best to think of this as one novel published in two parts. T. Kingfisher is a pen name for Ursula Vernon when she's writing books for adults.

The prologue has an honest-to-God recap of the previous book, and I cannot express how happy that makes me. This time, I read both books within a month of each other and didn't need it, but I've needed that sort of recap so many times in the past and am mystified by the usual resistance to including one.

Slate and company have arrived in Anuket City and obtained temporary housing in an inn. No one is trying to kill them at the moment; indeed, the city seems oblivious to the fact that it's in the middle of a war. On the plus side, this means that they can do some unharried investigation into the source of the Clocktaurs, the war machines that are coming ever closer to smashing their city. On the minus side, it's quite disconcerting, and ominous, that the Clocktaurs involve so little apparent expenditure of effort.

The next steps are fairly obvious: pull on the thread of research of the missing member of Learned Edmund's order, follow the Clocktaurs and scout the part of the city they're coming from, and make contact with the underworld and try to buy some information. The last part poses some serious problems for Slate, though. She knows the underworld of Anuket City well because she used to be part of it, before making a rather spectacular exit. If anyone figures out who she is, death by slow torture is the best she can hope for. But the underworld may be their best hope for the information they need.

If this sounds a lot like a D&D campaign, I'm giving the right impression. The thief, ranger, paladin, and priest added a gnole to their company in the previous book, but otherwise closely match a typical D&D party in a game that's de-emphasizing combat. It's a very good D&D campaign, though, with some excellent banter, the intermittent amusement of Vernon's dry sense of humor, and some fascinating tidbits of gnole politics and gnole views on humanity, which were my favorite part of the book.

Somewhat unfortunately for me, it's also a romance. Slate and Caliban, the paladin, had a few exchanges in passing in the first book, but much of The Wonder Engine involves them dancing around each other, getting exasperated with each other, and trying to decide if they're both mutually interested and if a relationship could possibly work. I don't object to the relationship, which is quite fun in places and only rarely drifts into infuriating "why won't you people talk to each other" territory. I do object to Caliban, who Slate sees as charmingly pig-headed, a bit simple, and physically gorgeous, and who I saw as a morose, self-righteous jerk.

As mentioned in my review of the previous book, this series is in part Vernon's paladin rant, and much more of that comes into play here as the story centers more around Caliban and digs into his relationship with his god and with gods in general. Based on Vernon's comments elsewhere, one of the points is to show a paladin in a different (and more religiously realistic) light than the cliche of being one crisis of faith away from some sort of fall. Caliban makes it clear that when you've had a god in your head, a crisis of faith is not the sort of thing that actually happens, since not much faith is required to believe in something you've directly experienced. (Also, as is rather directly hinted, religions tend not to recruit as paladins the people who are prone to thinking about such things deeply enough to tie themselves up in metaphysical knots.) Guilt, on the other hand... religions are very good at guilt.

Caliban is therefore interesting on that level. What sort of person is recruited as a paladin? How does that person react when they fall victim to what they fight in other people? What's the relationship between a paladin and a god, and what is the mental framework they use to make sense of that relationship? The answers here are good ones that fit a long-lasting structure of organized religious warfare in a fantasy world of directly-perceivable gods, rather than fragile, crusading, faith-driven paladins who seem obsessed with the real world's uncertainty and lack of evidence.

None of those combine into characteristics that made me like Caliban, though. While I can admire him as a bit of world-building, Slate wants to have a relationship with him. My primary reaction to that was to want to take Slate aside and explain how she deserves quite a bit better than this rather dim piece of siege equipment, no matter how good he might look without his clothes on. I really liked Slate in the first book; I liked her even better in the second (particularly given how the rescue scene in this book plays out). Personally, I think she should have dropped Caliban down a convenient well and explored the possibilities of a platonic partnership with Grimehug, the gnole, who was easily my second-favorite character in this book.

I will give Caliban credit for sincerely trying, at least in between the times when he decided to act like an insufferable martyr. And the rest of the story, while rather straightforward, enjoyably delivered on the setup in the first book and did so with a lot of good banter. Learned Edmund was a lot more fun as a character by the end of this book than he was when introduced in the first book, and that journey was fun to see. And the ultimate source of the Clocktaurs, and particularly how they fit into the politics of Anuket City, was more interesting than I had been expecting.

This book is a bit darker than Clockwork Boys, including some rather gruesome scenes, a bit of on-screen gore, and quite a lot of anticipation of torture (although thankfully no actual torture scenes). It was more tense and a bit more uncomfortable to read; the ending is not a light romp, so you'll want to be in the right mood for that.

Overall, I do recommend this duology, despite the romance. I suspect some (maybe a lot) of my reservations are peculiar to me, and the romance will work better for other people. If you like Vernon's banter (and if you don't, we have very different taste) and want to see it applied at long novel length in a D&D-style fantasy world with some truly excellent protagonists, give this series a try.

The Clocktaur War is complete with this book, but the later Swordheart is set in the same universe.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2019-01-13

Last modified and spun 2019-01-14