Timekeeper by Tara Sim // plot-packed steampunk runs like clockwork (mostly)

25760792Author: Tara Sim
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 8 November 2016
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Two o’clock was missing.

Seventeen-year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart knows the consequences of fractured clocks all too well: his father has been trapped – frozen in time – in a Stopped town for three years. He longs to work on the new clock tower which could save his father, but his fixation with staging a rescue is quickly becoming a concern to his superiors and he is instead assigned to Enfield, where the town’s clock tower seems to be forever plagued with problems, from rusting mechanisms to stolen hours.

But as a series of disasters befall the clock towers of other cities and Danny finds himself both annoyed and fascinated by a new apprentice, he begins to realize that the truth behind these mysterious events may far more complex – and dangerous – than anyone expected. 

Set in a steampunk Victorian landscape where time is tied to elaborate clockwork towers, Timekeeper has a striking premise and some intriguing elements, from teenage clock mechanics and mysterious clock spirits to the potential dangers of damaged time. The hallmark signs of steampunk are strict even for a niche sub-genre, so while it can’t be said that Timekeeper is original in all its details, it kept me intrigued from the start.

The book has been on the hype radar for so long that I couldn’t believe it didn’t release until November. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. What’s more, it’s a book where things actually happen – whether the heroes are prepared for them or not. It’s not quite unpredictable, but the idea that action can happen independently of what the heroes are planning or doing is one that I’d like to see played out more often in sci-fi and fantasy YA.

The plot is pacy and driven by mystery. As Danny’s discoveries unfold, there are revelations, discoveries, action sequences, chases, dramatic twists and, perhaps most crucially, a palpable ribbon of cohesion and intrigue weaving them together. I actually guessed the final twist – on page 78, no less! – but far from making me lost interest, it made the book more satisfying. It’s a rare book that rewards the reader so readily for paying attention, and like the intricate clockwork which keeps time running in Danny’s England, it slots solidly together.

There’s another surprise, too: Timekeeper has a great villain. Complex, believable, unexpected, clearly motivated – it ticks all the boxes. And I really don’t say that often, as I’m so used to YA and MG villains simply being the outlandish moustachioed bad guy whose motivations are generally just, well, to be the bad guy. It’s a tremendous feat from a fast read, too, though the book is very clearly written as a trilogy opener.

A quickly-developed romances sees Danny falling for a semi-mythical clock spirit, jeopardising the entire safe running of time (which clock spirits are supposed to dedicate their existence to). The romance will please fans looking for LGBTQ+ leads in genres other than contemporary (Danny is gay and love interest Colton is likely pan). It’s a little reminiscent of Twilight – of all things! – on occasion though (Colton’s jealousy and possessiveness, unhealthy romance cleaves main character from most other relationships, clock spirits are immortal while human Danny is mortal and breakable, yawn, you know the drill) and frequently relies on the tired “the world depends on me not doing this but I just can’t resist!” trope many readers will find grating at this stage.

Unfortunately, it’s with the characters that this book falls flat. The cardboard cut-out secondary cast lack depth and, like much of the book due to choppy prose, are hard to visualise. I would’ve liked more sophisticated exploration of friendship and other relationships. These characters are cardboard cut-outs, failing to endear in the case of the petty, one-dimensional Colton, or having their potential wasted in not being given an arc of their own, as with auto mechanic Cassie. Perhaps due to this deficit in connection with the characters, the book doesn’t make an impact or leave you reeling.

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Intriguing, pacy and packed with plot. It’s been a while since I’ve read a steampunk YA novel this engaging. For fans of Gates of Thread and Stone, The City of Ember and Mortal Engines, this début is let down only by lack of emotional impact and flat characters.

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