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

25760792Author: Tara Sim
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Publication date: 8 November 2016
Category: YA
Genre: steampunk
Series or standalone?: series  (#1)
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Two o’clock was missing.

In an alternate Victorian world controlled by clock towers, a damaged clock can fracture time, and a destroyed one can stop it completely.

Seventeen-year-old clock mechanic Danny Hart knows the consequences of fractured clocks all too well: his father has been trapped in a Stopped town for three years. He longs to work on the new 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 tangibly tied to elaborate clockwork towers, Timekeeper has a striking premise – but more importantly, it reveals on reading enough intriguing ideas to keep the story itself entertaining, 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 opened its pages with more than a little healthy skepticism, but 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, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy YA.

The book’s strong point is definitely its plot. It’s pacy, driven and has the feel of a mystery the reader can’t wait to solve. 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. A fantastic merging of plot and sub-plot sees the series of mishaps bringing Danny back to the small town of Enfield again and again of course give him the ability to solve clues in a conspiracy which could have far-reaching consequences for the world as he knows it. 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, that I find myself unable to invest in the story on a grander scale. It’s a tremendous feat from a fast read, too, though the book is very clearly written as a trilogy opener.

Danny’s rocky relationship with his mother and a mixture of animosity and pity from the other mechanics are very much the background noise against a quickly-developed romance. Falling in love with a semi-mythical clock spirit has ramifications not only for Danny but for 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. They 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, and ultimately the book becomes a little forgettable without a vibrant cast. 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. Worst of all, the book completely lacks emotional payoff. It doesn’t make an impact or leave you reeling. A gaping misstep in a book which is otherwise pretty solid, the characters in Timekeeper just don’t leap from the page.

3hstars-fw

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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