The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sometimes I find a book that I *want* to love more than I do when I actually read it. It's a shame this has to be one of those since I've really enjoyed the other three novels I've read by D. H. Wilson. I mean, what's not to love? Ancient clockwork robots hanging out and consuming each other for the anima to keep them going a bit longer, all of whom are hidden from sight from the rest of us fleshbags. Sounds a bit like Highlander, others have said. Robot Highlander. And sure, it shares that as a core, but there's a lot more going on here.
For one, there's the core worldbuilding with the words that bring these golems to life. These guys follow the idea of the word and it defines their whole long lives. There are hints that they might be 5 thousand years old. There are even more interesting hints that they may be much, much older. Ancient. As in pottery robots. The line dropped early on mentioning that there's nothing preventing history from moving in cycles, indeed the truth is there, that higher technology very well could have been discovered and lost many times over the millennia, and this novel is a cool exploration of just that idea.
Another great idea is the focus on the Tao for these machines. Each of the robots has its opposite (read non-western), often complimentary idea/word. It works like soulmates, like the Taoist symbol, like The Way. Attraction and strife, loss and waywardness follow when the other number dies or is consumed. Of course, this idea is rather subtle despite the obvious symbolism of the artifacts, but it fits with the characterizations and the themes of the novel. Cool stuff!
I even appreciated all the wide sweep of history from 300 years to present, all Highlander-like.
I suppose the only real issue I had with the novel was the characters. I didn't really get invested in any of them. The surrounding ideas and situations, even some of the emotional bits of the characters were rather good, but that isn't as consistent as I might have liked. A lot happens, but the characters felt stiff. Even the 12-year-old doll who suffers a life as an immortal child has been done tons already and I was just looking at it with somewhat jaundiced eyes. Hell, the previous book I just read had the same kind of character, and of course, I remember at least four other similar immortal girls from different series, including Rice. It's been done. Yes, she's angry. She changes over time and has a complicated relationship, sure, but her reasons for spurring Peter aren't really... good. You know? Maybe it's just me.
And then there's the overall story. Simple, but relies on fancy staggered reveals and hops from the present to the past over and over. It can be done well and Wilson does it pretty well, but I suppose it really requires a deep investment in the characters to function perfectly. It kinda fell flat for me, in other words.
I've liked his other novels much more, but I can appreciate the ideas in this one. I just wish I liked it more, overall.
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