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Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti
Cover Artist: Timothy Lantz
Review by Drew Bittner
Juno Books Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780809572564
Date: 01 April 2008 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

In the city-state of Ondirium, power lies in the great analytical engines that guide the noble exalteds ... and the punch cards that program them.

A winged courier finds herself enmeshed in a byzantine intrigue of terrorism, betrayal and romance as a terrible plot threatens to overturn Ondirium, from the peaks (where reside the exalted) to the depths (where reside the other, lower castes). It will take all her skill and wits to unravel the mysteries, with the help of a self-exiled exalted clockwright and a group of eccentric friends.

If she succeeds, all is well. But if she fails, Ondirium may fall in flames and ruin ...

Taya Icarus flies messages and packages from the heights of Ondirium to its lowest precincts. One day, she happens to spot a wireferry (sort of like a tram) in distress -- the girders that support the wires have warped and the carriage is ready to fall.

Taya rescues the occupants, an exalted (noble) woman named Viera and her son Ariq. Viera's profuse gratitude brings Taya into the orbit of powerful, wealthy folk, including Alister Forlore, one of the city's ruling decaturs, and his grim, taciturn brother Cristof. Alister's great charisma makes Taya swoon, but an act of bloody terrorism takes Alister (and his political ally, Viera's husband, Caster), leaving Taya and Cristof bereft ... and eager to investigate.

Acting on their own, the duo turn up a puzzling collection of clues. Alister, who was also one of the city's foremost programmers, was working on a master program intended to match suitable partners and ensure happy marriages. So why was he targeted by the Torn Cards, a terrorist sect out to wreck the city's wondrous analytical engines? Was Caster truly going to vote in support of Alister's daring social experiment, or was there something more subtle -- and sinister -- afoot?

Ominous signs rear up when Alister's programmers study his cards and realize there is much more to them than matchmaking. The investigation leads Cristof and Taya into the heart of the Great Engine itself, where one of the sources of the trouble is exposed. This revelation is quickly followed by an audacious theft, leading Cristof and Taya into greater danger as more powerful and dangerous enemies come against them.

For help, they have Taya's fellow icarii Cassi and Pyke, as well as the programmers Victor, Lars, Karl, Emelie and Isobel. They are a mismatched assortment of would-be city-rescuers, but there is no one else and no time; unless they solve the theft and apprehend the thieves, Ondirium's greatest secrets will be in the hands of an enemy nation -- and the city's days at the top of the world will be numbered.

Taya, whose humble ambitions include flying and seeing more of the world than Ondirium's smoke-drenched streets, must rise to the occasion and become a hero, while Cristof must consider what he has given up -- and what he must do, in the name of love and the name of duty.

Dru Pagliasotti has delivered a fascinating, fast-paced and delightful novel in Clockwork Heart. The setting is intriguing and unique, melding the best of steampunk with the wonders of high fantasy, and is peopled with a rich blend of characters from all walks of life. The noble exalteds wear heavy robes and masks, separating themselves from the common folk, while the lesser castes have tattoos that reveal their station in life. The subtleties of this complex society are drawn vividly and well; Pagliasotti has a great eye for detail and the minutiae of everything from a formal dance to a tavern in the seediest part of town.

Taya and Cristof are an unlikely team, but highly effective. She is witty and cheerful, he is brilliant and dour, yet they find each other an invaluable partner. He works as a clockwright in the city's third section (Tertius), while Taya flies from Primus (the highest reaches) to Secundus and Tertius on her routes. Casual encounters become a tense but stimulating partnership as they seek out Alister's murderers and find more than they suspected. They are both terrific characters, easily capable of sustaining more tales should Pagliasotti be so inclined.

Taya's friends Cassi and Pyke are likewise well drawn. They are both icarii like Taya, but Cassi is acerbic and mischievous, while Pyke is full of conspiracy theories and dire pronouncements -- to the point that the others actively ditch him to escape his bombast.

Lastly, Alister is a fascinating character in his own right. As intelligent as he is handsome, Taya finds there is more to him than meets the eye -- and his secrets are certainly perilous enough to make many enemies. His workings lie at the core of these mysteries and his tale is more than it seems.

Pagliasotti has brought forth a terrific novel, one that embodies a bold new direction in the fantasy genre. For those who enjoy the work of China Mieville or D.M. Cornish, here is another name to seek out on the bookshelves.

Recommended.

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