Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Clockwork Witch by Michelle D Sonnier


Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Errata:
"...she watched as her family prepare to leave the house." This really needed to have used 'prepared' rather than 'prepare'.
"When do you think they'll finally drag you into the family business, brother dear?" Arabella smiled. "Oh, I think not." John barked with laughter." The second speech doesn't follow from the first! If the 'when' was omitted from the first speech, it would make more sense.
"We've combed the library and its' not inconsiderable resources" no apostrophe is required on 'its'

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I am not a huge fan of steampunk, but then this really isn't a steampunk story even though it superficially professes to be a mashup of witchcraft and steampunk. That juxtaposition is what interested me in the novel as it happens, but I had too many writing issues with it to love it, despite it starting out very strongly for me.

My blog is more about the writing of novels than the reading of them, but I explore writing through discussing my reading experiences and assessing the book accordingly, and this one felt very much like a book feels when an American writer tries to write a Victorian novel without really knowing the Victorian period very well - at least as it was experienced in Britain. An example of such an Americanism was "She'll be furious is what she'll be." That's a common format - repeating the same person and verb at the end as you've used at the start, but I don't see a well-bred Victorian family employing it in Britain!

I don't profess to be an expert by any means, but since there exist very many books from that period, fiction and otherwise, my advice to writers is to read a lot of them so you get a feel for the vernacular in use back then. That aside, I did enjoy reading this to start with. Unfortunately, it had too many issues, by far the worst of which was the disturbingly weak and bland female main character.

I adore books with strong females - and by that I do not mean they can arm-wrestle a guy to the ground (although that could be a trait they have!). No, I mean women who are self-possessed and self-motivated and who do not wilt every other paragraph. I don't care if they start out weak and grow strong or if they're strong from the off. I do care if they never grow, and never change no matter what provocation or incentive they have, and that was this character's problem.

I know it was set in Victorian times when women were all-too-often deemed weak and delicate, and some actually were, just as some are today, but there were some amazing women who lived in that era (the queen for one example) and who made their mark: such as Ada Lovelace, Annie Besant, Eleanor Coade, Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Isabella Bird, Marianne North, Millicent Fawcett. Dido Belle was another although she came long before the Victorian era. Radclyffe Hall was another although she came later.

The novel began strongly, but then slowly and inexorably went downhill. The main character was so weepy and showed no sign of growing a backbone, so around seventy percent in I couldn't stand to read about her any more. I did a search for the word 'sobbed' in this novel, and it showed up ten different times and each time it was the main character who was doing the sobbing! This was throughout the novel. I don't mind a girl (or a guy for that matter) breaking down once in a while, but this girl was doing it habitually, at the drop of a hat. It was nauseating to keep reading it. Parts of the novel were really great, but she was such a lackluster and limp woman who had showed no sign of ever growing, and I lost all interest in her and her story.

People have on occasion chided me for DNF-ing a novel, but I see no point in forcing oneself to read something that simply doesn't get the job done. Life is far too short. Their argument that maybe things will turn around is weak and I've disproven it repeatedly. If the novel isn't getting it done by the time you're twenty percent in, you should quit right then. I almost quit around the half-way point, but decided to struggle on in hopes that it would improve because there had been parts I really enjoyed, but it did not improve. It steadily grew worse, and meanwhile I'd wasted more of my time pursuing it! I do not subscribe to the sunk cost fallacy; quitting is a smarter move than continuing to invest effort in something not worthy of your time.

The story is of the Sortileges, the leading witch family in Britain, and one which is highly-regarded beyond the immediate shores of the so-called Sceptered Isle. The Family is a large one - seven daughters and two sons. In this world, the daughters take precedence, because they are witches, and men take a back seat, contrary to 'mundane' society (read: muggles!) where it is of course the reverse, as real life history shows.

The main character is Arabella, a name I can't think of without being reminded of the rather catchy song from the old Peter Sellers movie based on a stage play: There's a Girl in My Soup (which I recommend for light-hearted fun and a few witty remarks, but you have to be something of an anglophile to get the best from it). The song runs along the lines of: "Arabella, Cinderella, what did she do? She turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of two! You know she should have done it way back at midnight. Why, oh why, can she never get it right!"

The biggest problem with Arabella, the trope seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, is that she wept constantly and never once stood up for herself. It was too much. Once in a while under stress, or from a major setback perhaps, it would have been fine, but it was every few pages and for the slightest of reasons.

That song I mentioned is particularly appropriate here, because Arabella can't get it right. She's a squib, to put it in Harry Potter terms. This is trope for this kind of story: the magical person with no magic who in the end turns out to be especially magical. It's a bit tired, and this particular story - the initially undiscovered mastery machinery - has been done before in The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker, a story which I really did enjoy.

The family is invited to a demonstration of a new calculating machine along the lines of Babbage's difference engine, but whereas his machine was a small one controlled by turning a crank the requisite number of times to do the calculation, Mr Westerfield's machine is quite the behemoth and runs on steam. Note that Babbage never built his final machine - only a smaller model of it because the government lost patience with him and stopped funding it.

The reason we know it works is that the machine was actually built in the 1980's in Australia using Babbage's original drawings and the machining techniques available in Babbage's time. The engine worked as specified. The name of Westerfield's machine looked like it was simply chosen because it had some superficial resonance with 'difference engine' but Babbage chose his name for a valid reason. I didn't get the impression that 'distinction engine' had any rationale behind it at all, so it stood out as an odd choice.

During the demo, Arabella discovers she can literally see the work in progress in the form of a glow in the machine's mechanisms, and she discovers that she can operate it using only thought. This is how she learns she actually does have a power, and it's also what brings her into conflict with Westerfield, although his antagonistic reaction to her is way over the top and her weasel reaction to him is, honestly, pathetic.

There was one part of the machine which Arabella cannot see any glow in, and it seemed obvious why this was so. Unfortunately, it made Arabella look a bit on the dumb side that she did not figure this out quickly, but the reason I mention this event is that there were a couple of writing issues with it.

The first of these is when the dignitaries are addressed to call the meeting to order and the guy says, "Ladies and gentlemen, members of Parliament, and noble witches," but he has the order wrong. If the witches are indeed as important as they're portrayed in this story, then they ought to addressed first. This is still the way it's done - prejudiced as it may be - with the monarchy, peerage, and nobility coming first, as in "My Lords, ladies, and gentlemen," for example.

It seems to me the witches would have been insulted to have been placed last, but no one says a word about it! This issue is further highlighted later in the story when Arabella's older brother John comes to tea and I read, "Arabella served tea and inquired after their father's health." Wait - in a witch family, the female serves tea? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I think the author means that she poured the tea, not served it, which a maid would have done, but even so, it undermined the earlier statements to the effect that women in witch families always took precedence.

The other issue I had in this section of the book was with the naming of the leading witch's daughters. One of the sons is called John, the other, Henry, both of which were very popular names back then and fitted right into the story, but not a single one of the daughters was given a name anywhere close to the usual names for girls in that time! Now you can argue that this is a different world, and these are witches, but if this is so, then how come the author doesn't mention it?

If one had been named Morgan, as in Morgan le Fay, or Jennet, as in Jennet Preston, or Mary, as in Mary Trembles, that would have worked, but none of the girls' names here invoked what you might consider to be a suitable name for a witch based on the names of those who were (of course insanely) deemed to be witches historically. Just FYI, the girls were named: Vivienne, Rowena, Jessamine, Josephine, Arabella, Amelia, and Elizabeth.

Apart from that latter one, these are quite simply not names that Victorian parents gave to their daughters, so this stood out like a sore thumb. Maybe the author chose them for a reason. To me, names matter a lot, and I always try to give my main characters meaningful names, such as Janine Majeski in Seasoning or Cora Graigh in Saurus. Cora's name pretty much told her entire story, if you knew what to look for, but if that wasn't the case in this novel, and they were merely names that sounded good to the author, then this rather betrayed the deeper story. At least that's how I felt about it!

The timeline of the novel is a little off. As set by the date of the great exhibition at Crystal Palace, the story takes place in 1851, but it conflates two periods of history which never coincided. The Irish potato famine was largely over by 1851, and the suffragette movement set English society alight toward the end of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, but it was barely an ember in 1851. Crystal palace is now better known as a soccer team than an exhibition, but that's the only part of this story's background that did take place in 1851!

The novel seems to be intended as a steampunk story - which is by definition an obfuscation of the timeline - so perhaps this conflation can be covered under that, but in another such conflation, at one point the author has the sisters playing croquet. The earliest record of croquet is 1856. That doesn't mean it could not have been around earlier, but it didn't become popular until the 1860s a decade after this story is set, so it seems hardly like this mundane game would have been played by Arabella's witch family in 1851, especially since the family snobbishly had no truck with the 'common people' (and Arabella saw no problem with this - another reason not to like her). In short, everything just felt off.

At one point I read John saying, "Arabella Helene Sortilege, I'm surprised to hear you lecturing me about respect when you've obviously snuck out of the house..." I had two issues with this. First of all 'snuck' is an Americanism, and while it may be used in Britain today (a lot of Americanisms are) it would never have left the lips of a person of breeding in 1851! Additionally, an older brother in England back then was hardly likely to use her full name. He would be much more likely to use a pet name - something from their childhood. There were other such lapses, such as "John leaned his elbows on the table" - no! Not in a well-bred family he didn't!

There's one more such incident. Amelia's boyfriend Harlan (again not a name likely to be found in 1850's Britain) says to Amelia: "join the Sisterhood today, chickadee...." No! Just no! The chickadee is a North American bird. It's unknown in Britain and unlikely to have even been heard of by most Brits back then. The closest thing to it is a tit, but he could hardly have described Amelia as 'my little tit' - although that would have been amusing had the guy been set up as socially inept. But no! A better choice would have been linnet. This is a British bird and was used as an endearment when talking of young women, back then. That was something I could let go, but then for inexplicable reasons, Arabella's mom starts referring to her using the same term, and honestly? It just sounded stupid.

Technically, the book is well-written in terms of grammar, spelling and such, but the formatting is odd. There is an extra carriage return between paragraphs which is a no-no for professional publishing and means that the book takes up far more space if it runs to a print edition than it would otherwise. My advice is to save a few trees in your print version using a thing called paragraph spacing (along with a smaller font and narrower margins). In the ebook, this doesn't matter so much except that a longer book uses more energy to transmit, so it's always wiser to keep it shorter if you can.

So for this large variety of reasons, I cannot rate this novel as a worthy read, but I am interested in this writer. I think she has imagination and talent, and I would definitely read the next thing she writes - assuming it's a genre that I have an interest in of course! I have zero interest in reading a Harlequin-style romance by any author for example, no matter how much I love them! So even though I cannot commend this one, I wish the author success in her endeavors. We need fresh young voices and she's in an excellent position to become one of them.