So I've been a bit quiet on this blog for the past few months. There have been a few changes in my life, which affected my ability to concentrate on books while reading (or, to be honest, to concentrate on any one thing in general). I've kept at it, but without succeeding at getting absorbed in the books - even ones where I could sense the quality of writing and plot. I felt it would have been unfair to write reviews under those conditions.
One theme that has developed is that I rather like the books and stories of Ursula Vernon / T Kingfisher. I loved Digger when I read it. I also read her short stories (one of which won the Hugo last year) and have been reading her other novels, novellas and novelettes. It's been immensely frustrating to read something as good as A Summer in Orcus while lacking the ability to concentrate. I could tell, while reading it, that it was just the sort of story I love, and yet, my brain felt as if the gas of narrative was flowing but the pilot light had gone out and the igniter wouldn't spark and fire up the imagination. I could tell that the problem was in my brain and not in the story. I'm not sure how else to describe it. A very alienating sensation indeed.
The Clockwork Boys stood out because it was the first book in quite a while where even my hard-to-ignite brain finally caught, and stayed properly engrossed. It's the story of Slate, a woman forger, and the band of not-terribly-merry men she leads on a quest of espionage and subterfuge. There's no-longer-Lord Caliban, a paladin / magical knight who used to fight demons until he himself got unlucky enough to be possessed by one, with utterly devastating consequences. There's Brenner, a professional assassin and Slate's Ex, who adds a sense of bemused menace to every scene he is in. And there's Learned Edmund, a teenage monk who is worried his genitals will fall off and his bowels will liquify if he has to suffer the presence of a woman - which poses a bit of a challenge on a mission led by one. Their mission is to steal the secret of the "Clockwork Boys" - ambulatory war machines that devastate anything in their path. But first, they have to get to the enemy heartland, which is a challenge all in itself...
Clockwork Boys works wonderfully because of the way our questing group is thrown (forced) together, and the way they interact. The best comparison I can think of is Jen Williams's equally superb The Ninth Rain, where trust and friendship between protagonists are also slowly built and earned, while a charismatic female leader drives the mission onwards. However, The Clockwork Boys is a little more light-footed: it's an adventure romp first and foremost, never stopping to be fun. (The Ninth Rain is a bit more serious, with complex character traumas and serious themes weaved into the book).
T Kingfisher / Ursula Vernon has a wry sense of humour. Her books often feel a bit like the Terry Pratchett novels featuring Granny Weatherwax or Tiffany Aching, because the way female characters navigate their worlds and problems reminds me very much of Granny or Tiffany. The writing doesn't chase laughs with the same frequency and persistence as Pratchett, but there's bound to be a chuckle or a smile on almost every page, which makes the book a joy to read. Clockwork Boys is especially funny when our little group first has to ride horses - which neither Slate nor Brenner are used to, to say the least.
The only problem is that this is the first book in a serialised story, so it feels like reading an actually enjoyable "Fellowship of the Ring" and then having to wait for the next instalment. It doesn't quite feel like a standalone novel.
That said, it's fun, pacey, funny, absorbing, full of enjoyable characters to be around and a group dynamic that has chemistry and intrigue and the best time I've had with a book in months. Highly recommended.