When I was in middle school, I adored binge reading series books. In fact, I had decided in 7th grade I would read EVERY SINGLE Star Wars Universe novel (now called Star Wars Legends; don’t get me started). One of my favorite authors during this time was Kevin J. Anderson. The Jedi Academy trilogy got me hooked on these books. His Tales From… Star Wars books introduced me to the idea of the short story. But, as most middle school crushes go, I quickly moved on.
Imagine my surprise when 20 years later I discover one of my friends is related to Kevin J. Anderson. My love for his writing was rekindled. It completely helped to know that Anderson co-wrote a novel with one my favorite drum set players of all time: Neal Peart of Rush. In fact, they co-wrote a steampunk novel to accompany Rush’s 20th album, and their first full concept album, with the same title.
Stop the presses. I must read this and review it immediately.
Clockwork Angels tells the story of everyman Owen Hardy, a disillusioned 16-year-old who wants more from life than what he has. Breaking all expectations and traditions, Owen sets out into the world and get caught in a battle between the Watchmaker’s strive for The Stability and the Anarchist’s “freedom extremism”– or, in simpler terms, Order versus Chaos. Told in beautiful allegory, Owen’s journey to maturity reflects back on the reader quite clearly.
The best place to start an adventure is with a quiet, perfect life.. and someone who realizes it can’t possible be enough.
To anyone familiar with Candide the parallels are obvious. In fact, Peart and Anderson address that Candide inspired Owen’s story arc: An optimistic young man who seeks his adventure, only to find pain, suffering, and heartbreak in the wide world. Yet, unlike Candide, not everything is doom and gloom. Peart’s spiritual side is obvious as the text explores more philosophical ideas throughout Owen’s adventure. The virtue of balance, ideas that extremes in any direction can be equally undesirable, the nature of life and death, ideas of disillusionment in life and with humanity, the purpose of imagination and freedom appear consistently throughout the text. Yet, nothing is preachy. Anderson and Peart give the reader their own opportunity to make decisions about the story, its intent, and the characters. There is a level of ambiguity around all the elements unlike Candide leaving the reader to decide what is right, what is wrong, and how the world should be.
As I mentioned, this is a steampunk fantasy– and I couldn’t be happier for this setting. The combination of magic and industry gives the entire story a more mystical timbre. These elements are not thrown in the reader’s face, but worldbuilding is solid. In fact, I would have loved to learn more about the technologies, history, and parallel world ideas alluded to throughout the novel. Worldbuilding, in general, was perfect for me: Just the right amount of detail to provide a clear picture of Owen’s experiences without overwhelming me with details.
Optimism is the best fertilizer.
Anderson and Peart provided die-hard Rush fans with plenty of easter eggs. Lyrics from their entire body of work were thrown in the text. To someone who isn’t a Rush fan, I’m certain they wouldn’t notice. Anderson’s writing absorbed these phrases easily. But, to an avid Rush fan, it got distracting. I was constantly picking out lyrics and hearing songs in my head which might or might not have been relevant to the current story. I know many people loved this element but it didn’t quite work well for me.
I also struggled with the lack of character development. I know it is intentional that almost every character is 1-dimensional. This was obviously taken from Candide. Yet, character development is one of my favorite parts of reading. Philosophically, I appreciate how this character flatness lent itself to more clearly articulating the philosophy behind the story. The simple characters meant Anderson and Peart didn’t have to bash their readers over the head with their ideas. Instead, these ideas unfolded easily through the actions of their characters. I did find some characters I adored, but not many. It’s such a change from Anderson’s other works I have read that I was a bit taken aback.
When tending a vast and beautiful garden, you have to plant many seeds, never knowing ahead of time which ones will germinate, which will produce the most glorious flowers, which will bear the sweetest fruit. A good gardener plants them all, tends and nurtures them, and wishes them well. Optimism is the best fertilizer.
To me, the most magical part of Clockwork Angels is the full and combined work. Yes, this book can stand on its own. And so can the album. Yet this is really just one project presented in two separate mediums. Listening to the album in conjunction with the story from the novel combines these elements to form a more complex concept. Together you can experience the truth breath, depth, and context of this tale.
If you are even remotely interested in Rush or in this idea, I strongly encourage you to experience these two together. Read and then listen, listen and then read, or do both at the same time– it doesn’t matter. The experience in the end will be just as magical.
What do you think?
- Steampunk as a genre: Thoughts?
- Have you read Candide? Does a retelling appeal to you?
- Do you have any authors or books you are nostalgic for in some way?