Fiction Reviews

A Clockwork River

(2021) J. S. Emery, Ad Astra - Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, v +721pp, ISBN 978-1-800-24992-9


This is a very long book. In its 720-odd pages we are introduced to a series of comic characters getting involve in improbably (and implausible) situations with more than a hint of Victoriana about it, not least in the convoluted language not quite echoing the times. Great cover, though.

It was written by a brother and sister team, Jacob and Sara Emery, over a period of ten years or so and is a first novel Ė though theyíve had plenty of time to polish the manuscript and its prose is strong for a first outing. Itís way too long, though. Iíve got the hardback sitting in front of me and it is, without exaggeration, bigger in all dimensions than a house brick. Iím surprised the publishers put it out as one volume Ė I certainly recoiled at the sight of it when it thumped (hard) on my doormat.

The plot is that a poor, aristocratic lock enthusiast goes missing (heís been robbed and pressed into military service) and his sister tries to rescue him, helped by a house spirit, convicts, actors and other murky and nefarious creatures, some of which live in a network of pipes under the city (which is slowly falling apart Ė just like the family). Oh, and thereís a talking mouseÖ

Itís not really steampunk and itís not really Terry Pratchett, but Iíd guess thatís what the authors were aiming for. Maybe Enola Holmes meets Harry Potter. In other words, not to be taken too seriously. Itís entertaining enough, I guess. The caricatures appear to aim for Dickensian, but thereís no real bite to them: Briony, the main protagonist, is engaging in a feisty, non-conformist teenage rebel way, but her brotherís too strange to be likeable and itís hard to really care about what happens to him. This, plus the larger than life characters, mean this isnít a novel with much tension or suspense, though the plot meanders along nicely, plenty of quirky characters are introduced and lots of amusing things happen.

It lost me at Ďhouse spirití though.

Mark Bilsborough


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