With a title like The Clockwork Witch, who needs a synopsis? You got clocks, you got witches, and you got a witch that fixes clocks. What else were you expecting? Michelle D Sonnier hits the nail on the head with this Victorian-Era Urban-fantasy about discovering the most counter-intuitive witch powers a teen girl could ask for.
Arabella Sortilege is the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, born to the Grand Dame of the great Blackstone House under the auspices of a not so subtle prophecy. Except unlike all her sisters, she can’t seem to manifest any abilities. What’s a girl to do? Until she sneaks into a World’s Fair type of Exhibition and meets a certain Mister Westerfeld and his Distinction Engine (see while the women all go and do their witch thing, the mundane men compensate with motors and machines). Having been sequestered within her mother’s overprotective bubble, this first experience with machines awakens her gifts in what essentially amounts to the antithesis of natural witchcraft.
Sonnier writes pretty heavily in the Victorian style of Brontë or Austen or Hawthorne and I don’t just mean the four-syllable name of her protagonist. Every noun has an adjective. Every sentence an adjective clause. The opening line of the novel includes the word “voluminous” unironically. But to call The Clockwork Witch overwritten is to miss the point. Writing with a flowery abundance of verbosity is half the fun for the kind of audience who will most enjoy this genre, and unlike much of the indie steampunk fare you’ll find, at least it’s not inundated with the ineffectual passive voice so often used as a crutch in these fan-fic circles. Indeed, I warmed to the florid prose and the period culture it depicted after a few chapters. It helped that characters were as equally stiff and courtly and conforming to the Victorian social protocols of the era as the speech patterns they use and the narrative style they’re presented in. Clothing, polite speech, supervised courtship, and political intrigue are the rule of the day and it slowly sets in that these are the main obstacles Arabella must overcome. Social oppression.
Sure, there are the other sisters to contend with. Vivienne the eldest. Elizabeth the nasty one. Rowena the close friend. Amelia the loverstuck one and newly engaged. Josephine and Jessamine the coy twins. Then there are the stiff men in their suits with their pocket watches. The aloof father and brothers, experimenting in the basement. The overbearing mother. The conniving coterie of witch houses, each constantly contesting for power and position within the system. And everyone with designs on Arabella for good or for ill, as they hope to profit from either her ascendency or demise. The real underlying theme (and plot) of this story is a vaguely coming-of-age one, as Arabella must navigate this strict and conflicted world and its rules and whether or not she should try to break some of them before they break her. But as much as this fantasy becomes a metaphor for finding your own unique identity within a strange and dangerous world, I’m not sure it’s up to the task to explore these notions deeply enough to matter. I appreciated that Westerfeld isn’t a star-crossed lover for Arabella, or the witches versus inventors motif wasn’t just another Romeo and Juliet setup. On the other hand, as an enemy, he sort of falls out of the plot. Arabella makes a bold move to disown her Mother and her prominent witch house as if she might side with the male inventors instead, but then that sort of falls apart as well when she decides to go back and settle up with the witches afterall. It’s a nice personal obstacle that keeps the story small and intimate in scale, and it makes for a nice character driven climax, except then it’s suddenly over.
The book ends a little too abruptly, without even the faintest semblance of denouement or falling action to inform the outcome and implications of the climax. It’s not entirely clear whether the results of Arabella facing the Trials will bring peace between the houses, or with the mundane normals or with the men and their machines or will it just lead to a witch civil war. Sonnier doesn’t take a moment to cast an aura of hope, gloom or even suspicion on the proceedings, must less a twist or a cliff hanger of any sort to hook us for a sequel. If there’s no sequel, then the text as presented is either unfinished or riddled with extraneous digressions and unfinished subplots. It leaves countless loose ends such as whatever happened to our presumed villain Westerfeld? Or Beatrice of Fossdrum House who fails to assassinate her at the Trials? Or all that stuff about the dead faeries in the machines? Is Arabella the prophesied witch afterall? What does it mean if she is? I’m honestly not sure. There are many books that leave a reader wanting answers or at least wanting more, but this feels more like a forgotten ending rather than an open ended one.
There is one exception though, and that’s with her mother. Ultimately the story largely rests with and hinges on the relationship with her mother. It’s partly protective, abusive, and toxic, but there is a backstory for it, and like real life relationships, it’s complicated. Even the bad choices are born out of a kind of love, and it’s never more apparent than in the climax, and it’s the only theme or plot threat that is properly resolved by the story’s conclusion, even if that resolution is appropriately ambiguous and complicated like it always had been. Maybe that’s all the story ever meant to be about, and the rest was all set dressing and foundation on which to tell it. If so, maybe it makes sense that the story ends where it does because this story isn’t about all the rest of that fantasy stuff?
Conclusion: 3.5 Stars out of 5. A mildly overwritten Pride and Prejudice with witches that falls short of making full use of the little worldbuilding it has. The magic was passably standard and basic but ultimately played second fiddle to a much richer mother-daughter dynamic that carried the novel. Surprisingly readable in spite of itself, I imagine a lot of readers might really get into it, despite medium characterization and a meandering, plot. It still had some heart at its core.