Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Clockwork Cathedral (Heather Blackwood)

The Clockwork Cathedral
(The Time Corps Chronicles, Book 1)
Heather Blackwood
Triple Hare Press
Fiction, Sci-Fi
**+ (Bad/Okay)

DESCRIPTION: Felicia Sanchez, a medical student, just wanted to get home after her shift at Tulane Hospital... but suddenly a man on horseback appeared in front of her bus. She jumped out to help him - and the bus vanished, leaving her stranded in the middle of 1850s New Orleans. Only this isn't quite the past as she learned it. Steam-powered omnibuses share the streets with horse-drawn carriages, and the cathedral features clockwork automata displays beyond anything she's heard of. With no idea where she is or how she got here, she must rely on a strange and stubborn man, whose experiments may have inadvertently pulled her from her own place and time.
Professor Seamus Connor has built a respectable life for himself in America - no small feat for an Irish immigrant, especially one living under an assumed name after breaking out of prison. His life might be even better, but his former friend (and cellmate) Oren McCullen stole the plans for the peroxide-powered engine they designed and parlayed it into a fortune. Furthermore, he somehow increased its power output far beyond what should be possible; it was Connor's tinkering with a McCullen engine that created the rift through which Miss Sanchez passed. The woman seems little better than a barbarian, with entirely unsuitable clothing for a female and no manners to speak of, but he can't shirk his obligation to her - but for his meddling, after all, she wouldn't be stuck in a time that has little use for women, especially learned Hispanic women.
As Seamus and Felicia attempt to unravel the mysteries of the time rifts and the McCullen engines, it soon becomes apparent that greater factors are at work, with ties to a recent presidential assassination and a brewing war that could have devastating consequences for the whole world.

REVIEW: This tale of steampunk and time travel starts slow, and seems reluctant to build momentum. Felicia starts out an innocent victim, if annoyingly slow on the uptake about her transference to another time, but I got irritated with her as I got to know her better. One of the first things she does, when she accepts that she's in the 1850's, is nag Seamus about why he isn't taking a stand against social injustices like slavery. If she had been shown to be an activist in her own time (which isn't quite ours, just as this past isn't quite her past), it might've made sense, but instead it comes across as an ungrateful house guest nagging the host about the state of their garden when her own garden has more than a few weeds in it itself. Seamus, meanwhile, is so blinded by his time's views on women and minorities that it constantly surprises him when she fails to conform to his expectations of ineptitude... though at least he's shown to be a man too lost in his own head to really have noticed a woman before now. A subplot involves Henry, a homeless girl posing as a boy on the streets, who ran way from her aunt and uncle because of abuse and molestation. Instead of the outrage and rush of concern that I should've felt on reading this, I only rolled my eyes; yes, child abuse in any form is a horrific thing, a trauma that never quite heals, but the perverted uncle and evil aunt have become such tired cliches by now that I expected it long before it was revealed. Is that really all authors can think to do to traumatize women and girls? The series title, Time Corps, telegraphs the arrival of a mysterious agent who seems intent on helping Seamus crack the McCullen engine riddle, yet who also actively refuses to help, bound by inconsistent and contradictory rules. He keeps teasing like that too-clever guy in the room who only asks questions he alone knows the answers to, then just grins and shrugs and refuses to even hint to help his frustrated audience. Why should I care about him or his loosely-implied colleagues? Furthermore, why should I follow a series about them? As for the alternate timelines, the more I learned about them the less sense they made. If they'd been direct parallel worlds with minor variations, it wouldn't have been so bad, but then there turn out to be significant anatomical differences between people from Felicia's world and Seamus's, leading me to suspect that they might not even both be Homo Sapiens Sapiens... which makes it highly improbable that their histories should so closely parallel each other's, down to the same last names for important historical figures. As all this is sorting itself out, more or less, the story clunks and rattles along with far too many explanatory tangents between plot points, eventually reaching a pyrotechnic finale and a conclusion that completely forgets one of Felicia's key motivations. While I found some elements of Blackwood's tale intriguing, and her steampunk-flavored antebellum New Orleans had some nice imagery, I just couldn't connect with the characters, and the story didn't engage me enough to tempt me for further Time Corps adventures.

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Nick of Time (Ted Bell) - My Review
Broken Wings (Sylvie Kurtz) - My Review
Serpent of Time (Eugene Woodbury) - My Review

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