"The Havoc Machine," Steven Harper

Pros: Interesting world-building and story
Cons: Some discordant tones
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Release date: May 7, 2013
Review book courtesy of Penguin Group

 

The clockwork plague reduced some people to mindless plague-spreading zombies, while elevating others to empathy-free brilliant mad scientists called clockworkers. As the clockworkers fall deeper and deeper into plague-fueled fugues, they lose touch with their humanity, often hurting, torturing, and killing people in their mad quest to build ever-stranger devices. Thaddeus Sharpe has dedicated himself to hunting and killing clockworkers, often destroying their automatons and devices in the process. When a mysterious young woman, Sofiya, working for an even more mysterious man named Mr. Griffin, hires Thad to steal a device from a clockworker, things inevitably go wrong. Thad cares more about killing the clockworker and rescuing a young boy than he does obtaining the device, and soon he finds himself forced further and further into Mr. Griffin’s dangerous schemes.

Those schemes take him, the circus he travels with, Sofiya, and the boy he rescued (Nikolai) to the palace of the tsar, embroiling him in court politics, assassination attempts, and one great, horrific clockworker plan that threatens everyone.


 

Steven Harper’s The Havoc Machine: A Novel of the Clockwork Empire is the fourth in the “Clockwork Empire” series. However, it sits somewhat apart from the events of the other books, and the opening notes specifically recommend it for new readers who haven’t read the other installments. I did find that it stood quite well on its own.

The details of the clockwork plague are captivating: one plague that creates a minor zombie menace, and a much greater two-sided boon/menace in the form of the clockworkers. They create astounding devices that can give their countries great power, but they also lose such touch with their humanity that they become incredibly dangerous to those around them. Thad is an interesting point of view character as the novel explores the idea of what it means to be a clockworker, and what it means to be an automaton.

Some of the ‘secrets’ in the story are telegraphed a little too much, making it difficult to understand why the characters don’t pick up on them. Also, I found the tone of the book somewhat discordant: most of the tale is dark and gritty fantasy/steampunk, but the nature of the clockworkers occasionally veers into the silly end of comic-book mad scientist villain territory. It was also difficult to understand some of the tsar’s choices and decisions—sometimes they felt too convenient to the plot.

The question of free will in the context of automatons arises, but it seems to be handled a little inconsistently. Supposedly certain conditions have to be met before an automaton develops ‘sentience’ as such (sorry for the vagueness, but I’m trying not to give away plot points), but there are minor automaton characters (such as Dante the parrot and Maddie the spider) that seem to exhibit such traits without the relevant criteria having been met.

There are some lovely plot twists and ideas in here, and a very nice exploration of the nature of clockworkers as well as the nature of their automatons. The circus felt a little stereotypical, but it had some good details to it as well. There is some minor dark material to be aware of (things occasionally get a bit bloody)—I say this simply so you can decide whether it’s a book that suits your tastes. The concept of clockworkers is brilliant, and I love how it’s handled. All in all this isn’t the best steampunk novel I’ve read (so far that honor goes to A.A. Aguirre’s Bronze Gods), but it’s certainly an engrossing and interesting read.

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