Set in London. (Seems to be the Regency Era.) After the plague. Before the secret at the end of the world.
The Honorable Alice Michaels is caring for her dying father, Arthur, Baron Michaels. They are basically penniless and, as the daughter of a baron, it is socially forbidden for Alice to find paying work, no matter how many useful skills she has. Most of her family died from the clockwork plague, so Alice is not considered to be a good choice for one to wed. At the age of twenty-one, Alice has an unladylike interest in automatons. Alice is surrounded by little automatons that she has assembled. (Her interest in engineering is another unladylike habit.) The automatons had arrived in pieces for Alice to assemble from Aunt Edwina over the last five years. Alice's companion (and favorite automaton) is Click, her clockwork cat.
People are used to seeing plague zombies stumbling around, especially at night. Zombies are to be avoided at all costs. One touch from a zombie can pass the plague. Every so often, perhaps one time in a hundred thousand, the plague did not destroy the brain. Instead, it makes the brain work with a wondrous efficiency. Mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry - even some forms of art - become mere toys to these rare and particular plague victims. The geniuses are called "clockworkers". They create amazing inventions, many of which defy universal laws. Clockworkers create with great glee and do not think about repercussions. This is why a clandestine organization, the Third Ward, searches them out, gives these geniuses a place to create their gadgets, and keeps their work in check. Of course, all the inventions are harvested to serve the Empire. (England rules most of the known world.)
High above the earth, Gavin Ennock works on an American airship. After an attack by privateers, he finds himself stranded in London. Gavin has a rare musical talent and uses it to survive. Without warning, Gavin is kidnapped and is trapped in a tower for two weeks. This is when he is rescued by Alice and Click.
When Aunt Edwina disappears, Alice inherits her estate. The house is full of deadly traps. While rescuing Gavin from its tower room, Alice finds one last gift from her aunt, a clockwork valet named Kemp. Alice's inheritance attracts the attention of the Third Ward. The organization is very interested in Edwina. They also want to recruit Gavin, for his astounding musical talent, and Alice, for her multiple talents. But the Third Ward has its own dark secrets. When Alice and Gavin discover them, a choice must be made between the world and the Empire, no matter the risk to all they hold dear.
***** FIVE STARS! There is more going on in this story than I reveal in my synopsis, but to tell more may reveal spoilers. Click, the clockwork cat, has abilities in which Alice is unaware. The author managed to throw me a curve ball more than once with this sleek feline. As for Kemp, this manservant reminds me A LOT of C3PO, from the "Star Wars" saga. Often I would find myself amused by the human emotions these two automatons seem to mimic. The only thing about the story that grates on my nerves is the amount of times Alice decides to join the Ward, only to change her mind and back out. For someone so intelligent, this was a little unbelievable for me to accept.
To me, this story is some kind of mash-up between Science Fiction, Fantasy, and with a healthy dose of Regency Romance injected within. Loose strings are left for continuation in the next title, The Impossible Cube: A Novel of the Clockwork Empire
(May 2012). This is a well written tale with a solid foundation upon which the author may build. The potential for this series is vast. And though I have never read a story by this author before, I can easily see that Steven Harper has an extraordinary writing talent and his characters, human or not, are all addictive as sin. An eclectic story that I cannot recommend highly enough. *****