Every time a book starts strongly from the very first pages, I know I might be in for a delightful experience: this was the case with The Clockwork Dynasty, and even though my initial reaction was curtailed by a few minor quibbles and a lukewarm ending that did not do justice to the story’s buildup, still the journey was a fun one.
June Stefanov is a researcher who specializes in mechanical artifacts from the past, and when we first encounter her she is meeting with the members of a secluded religious sect in possession of an ancient doll whose intricate inner works bring June to the discovery of the avtomats’ existence. These are mechanical creatures built to resemble human beings, powered by a mysterious core appropriately called anima and able to function almost indefinitely.
June’s interest comes from a relic inherited from her grandfather, who survived the bloody Stalingrad siege during WWII and witnessed an extraordinary sight: a tall, apparently invulnerable soldier who was able to crush German troopers and tanks as if they were made of paper, and in whose wake young Stefanov found the artifact bequeathed to June – an avtomat’s anima.
From this point onwards, the story develops in two different and converging time tracks (with a few forays into a more distant past): the present follows June and her search for the key to the puzzle that so unexpectedly fell in her lap, and the past focuses on the avtomats Pyotr/Peter and his sister Elena, whose bodies were recovered at the time of czar Peter the Great and restored to function by the court’s latest mechanician. I found Peter and Elena’s track by far the more fascinating of the two: we see them gaining more and more awareness of themselves and the world from the moment of their re-awakening, searching for a purpose and trying to fulfill their Word, the defining command built into each avtomat’s anima, the element that determines their character.
Elena obeys logicka, the pursuit of knowledge and reason, and her struggles in that direction managed to endear her to me despite her sometimes brittle disposition: Elena has been shaped like a little girl, so that whoever looks at her, unaware of her nature, tends to take her at face value, seeing only the childish form and ignoring the keen intellect underneath. Peter himself tends to fall into this trap, if for different reasons: he considers her his sister and he works under the strong compulsion to cherish and protect her, and as well-meaning as this urge is, Elena chafes under what she perceives as a smothering influence, one that prevents her from following her own directive. In the long run, this situation creates between them a rift that keeps them apart for centuries, always leaving an empty place in Peter’s soul, one he seems unable to fill.
Being bound by pravda, a combination of truth and justice, Peter tries to obey his Word by seeking rulers to serve, but time and again discovering none of them are worthy of his loyalty, and that he’s ultimately betraying his basic commandment, so that he becomes increasingly despondent. If I could sympathize with Elena (the woman/child no one could take seriously), I felt deeply for Peter and his search for the purpose that could define him, and give his existence meaning: it might have been easier for his sister to adapt to a changing world, since her ceaseless studies helped her better understand herself and her place in the world, but Peter does not enjoy such luxury, so we see him searching in vain for that meaning, only to have it always escape his grasp. Part of the problem, as we learn along the way, comes from the loss of memory resulting from a catastrophic shutdown: needing to recapture his lost self, Peter latches on the closest thing, his connection to Elena and the strong feelings of family she engenders. Those feeling come across as quite poignant considering Peter’s nature: we often think of machines – no matter how sophisticated – as logical constructs devoid of emotion, but these avtomats are something else indeed.
Given the intensity of the narrative threads focused on Peter and Elena, the chapters devoted to the present and June’s journey of discovery feel like something of a letdown. For starters my impression was that she was there as a mere tool, someone needed to connect the various “dots” and therefore not deserving of full character development: I never felt any connection with June as a person, not in the same way and with the same depth as with Peter, or Elena. Worse still, June shows several markers for the Mary Sue Syndrome: she’s exceptionally good at what she does, she can solve problems on the fly, and she shows impressive amounts of courage and physical endurance that don’t match with her personality as an academic. If her character makeup wanted to give off a Sarah Connor vibe (and the beginning of the book did remind me a little of the first Terminator movie, thanks to the encounter with Peter’s nemesis and his relentless chase), I’m afraid that from my point of view it missed the mark.
This, and the ending that felt quite anticlimatic, did detract a little from my initial appreciation of the story, and downsized the rating I was ready to assign at the beginning – still, it was a good, entertaining read and I don’t regret the time I invested in this book.