Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dear Sister Person Book Club: His Clockwork Canary by Beth Ciotta


Dear Sister Person,

SO WE MEET AGAIN, BINGHAM. This. Fucking. Guy. How does he even put on pants ever, let alone mastermind a plan to assassinate a monarch? Whenever he enters the scene, all I can picture is Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet, only much more inept and skeevy, in a way that only a robot-porking misogynist can. I am really hoping that, in one of the sequels, Renee, his robot sex slave and "confidant" returns to finish the job she started, only this time by sitting on his face and suffocating him.

Excuse me, I believe I'm getting ahead of myself here.



First and foremost, I'd like to apologize for forcing us down this path. After reading Her Space Sky Cowboy, I was hoping against all hopes that the next book would not be complete shit. Granted, I wasn't really expecting too much, even though everyone was all, "OMG IT'S SOOOO MUCH BETTERRRRR." I mean, these are the same people who liked the first book, so, you know, grain of salt. However, I will agree with them to a degree, since Ciotta did seem to improve in some facets, while failing miserably in others.
His Clockwork Canary by Beth Ciotta
I suppose the cover is as good a place to start as any. (I know it probably isn't so much the author's decision, but she probably got some say in the matter.) We get to see the hero's face! And the heroine actually kinda looks like the person described in the book! Two points for Griffindor! And look! The little canary thingy that Simon bought (or did he win it? I don't remember/care) Willie is there! The designers also decided to take the steam down a few notches, too, although I'm still not quite sure where they are, but you know what? I take what I can get.

Moving on. It was refreshing to see that this relationship between Simon Darcy and Wilhemina (or Willie, as I'll be referring to her from now on) Goodenough has realistic sexual tension: there's unresolved history here, with desire untempered by twelve years apart, and the mutual distrust of the two was pretty well done, if not occasionally overwrought. Willie, having lived her entire adult life in hiding - she's a Freak and a woman, and in Victorian England, she might as well just be invisible - is understandably wary of outing herself in any way and hesitant to believe that Simon could accept her for who she truly is. Since she seemingly jilted him after they'd planned on eloping, Simon has some severe abandonment issues with Willie, even dreading the idea of her running away from their wedding, and additionally, he's recently lost his father, Reginald, an event that Willie, in the guise of the Clockwork Canary, had documented (well, not really, it was her editor, but whatever, this is not something that Willie ever mentions to Simon, which you'd think she would, but again, what-the-fuck-ever) in a rather flippant way. One thing I did appreciate was that Queen Victoria still refused to acknowledge their marriage, since that would have made me just toss my library loan across my living room. So, good on you, Ciotta.

As for the continuation of Ciotta's world building, I have to give her a lot of credit. Instead of filling this book with so many fantastical things that you feel incredibly overwhelmed, she instead focuses on the things that mattered to the story, in particular Willie's life as a Freak, a child born from a Mod and a Vic. Throughout her childhood, she was starved of affection from both of her parents, who were terrified of her time-tracing ability, where she can relive a memory of the person she's physically touching. Once Simon left her life, she adopted the identity of a male Vic, Willie G, and took a job as a journalist, a profession heavily dominated by men, in order to provide for herself and her mentally feeble father. She abandoned so many parts of herself to survive, an aspect of Victorian society that has continued through today. One of my favorite passages was after Simon and Willie's wedding night:
"She hated that she felt so fiercely out of sync. Still connected to her old ways, whilst inspired to strike out in a bold new way. As a woman. As a Freak. As the wife of a Vic. One thing was clear. She could not dredge up an iota of motivation to bind her breasts or to hide her shape. Nor did she wish to alter her complexion or to remind herself incessantly to slouch and to speak in a lowered, gruff pitch. She'd woken up resenting the fact that she'd lived a lie for so long. That she'd suppressed her femininity, that she'd denied her race*. She resented having to pretend she was a male Vic simply to work in a profession she excelled at. And she regretted her penchant to operate on the fringes, hiding behind costumes and pen names rather than fighting out in the open for her cause. She preached equality, yet she did not present herself as an equal."
Given the current outburst of issues regarding women in the gaming and comics industries, this quote, albeit long, is quite apropos. How many female writers of science fiction - or hell, literary fiction - have resorted to using pen names? I know that I considered it. How many women felt that they couldn't openly admit their love of video games or comic books without being ridiculed or harassed? I've gotten to where I just don't care any longer, but in my youth, I tried to keep those aspects of myself relegated to close friends and family alone. I believe that many women reach this very point in their lives, where they are just tired of playing the game of being what society wants them to be, resentful of not having a choice in the matter, because their livelihood would be stripped from them, be it marriage or a high-level job. Because they were female. Sigh. We have so far to go.

Anyway (not to pooh-pooh the above paragraph, but I can only be serious for short bouts), I really enjoyed the latter fourth of the book, too, where we're led through the streets of London and into catacombs and then there's a bomb that Simon and Phin have to dismantle and ... it's just crazy. The pace was quick and appropriately urgent, something the rest of the book needed pretty badly. Plus, I was pleased to see Amelia and Tuck again, which, I know, odd concept considering I spent the last review complaining about them, but I kinda missed the two idiots? Honestly, had the rest of the book matched up to this section - it didn't even need explosions or stun cuffs or anything, just less lazing about** - I would be rating it higher than just three stars.

And now to the negative, because who am I kidding, I have been waiting to do this part since I first started reading.

First off, okay, so Simon is a genius, right? Like, he had drafted a workable plan for a city-wide monorail system and crafts that mechanical arm brace thing for Willie. And yet, Ciotta expected me to just go with the idea that Simon was just too damn dumb to figure out that, "Yep, that indeed is the chick I banged twelve years ago." I mean, sure, he does see that she's a lady person fairly early on (thank God), but really? She dyed her hair, slathered herself with self-tanner, wore colored contacts, and dressed in baggy men's clothes; she didn't have facial reconstructive surgery! Hell, if Simon's any indication, it's a wonder that Three doesn't grill me on my identity whenever I color my hair or go to the tanning bed. It would have been different if they'd been, say, in single digits when they were all, "We're going to run away and get married!" (like children under 10 do, I suppose) But they weren't. Both Simon and Willie were in their teens. I could understand a little confusion at first, but this? Nope.

Second, oh, my GOD, Bingham. I just read back on my description of him as Dark Helmet, and I stand by it. He calls himself the "Kingpin of the Universe," for crying out loud. As to be expected, he does exactly the equivalent of nothing throughout the entire book (well, except getting shot by Renee), only this time, he's either a passenger on his personal dirigible, the Mars-A-Tron (???) on his way to Australia or on the Iron Tarantula, a tank that's constructed like a spider, on his way across the Outback, or he's in some sort of VFW/Star Wars cantina, trying to be all big and bad like Teddy Roosevelt, which is odd because he's British. Which begs this question: exactly what kind of time table are we on in this book? The last time we heard from Bingham in Cowboy, he was in England, plotting and shit, but now, after indicating that three weeks have passed since Reginald Darcy's death, he's all the way in Australia? (Well, so is Jules, the other Darcy brother, but that's beside the point. We're focusing on Bingham here.) He's in a fucking blimp, not an SST. Whatever. Of course, we leave Bingham at an Australian hospital, nursing a gunshot wound (good on you, Renee***, even if you have no agency whatsoever), and of course, he's obsessed with Jules because, like in the first book, Ciotta is priming us for the next one. Because why focus on what's happening now when you can advertise for free??

Third, despite the fact that I enjoyed Willie and Simon's romance over that of the youngest Darcy and a Sky Cowpoke, Willie's deceased Mod mother's involvement with the security of the not-actually-destroyed time machine engine kept my attention waaaaay more than how many times Willie was "slick with want." Come to think of it, nearly everything else was that much more interesting than their relationship, which dragged down the pace of the plot more than anything else. This book was much worse about the random character introductions, where they'd just pop in, be truly fascinating, and then poof! disappear into the aether. Austin "Rock" Steel, the operator of the above-mentioned Iron Tarantula, was kind of an Australian Rhett Butler type, but we only really get to see him through Bingham's eyes in, like, two scenes. Dr. Bella Caro (who I can only assume is going to be Jules' love interest in his dedicated novel) shows up twice like a ninja, says something quippy, and then leaves for Australia. Wesley, however, is the most egregious example of this: he's mentioned throughout most of the novel and only shows up right at the end, when Ciotta needs a Bad Guy, revealed to be the Stormerator, the Freak aboard Captain Dunkirk's ship only alluded to in Cowboy.
Where did you even come from?
Via Giphy
Oh, yeah, and remember how I said that I enjoyed the last fourth of the book? Well, I was only being half-serious. This is the inner monologue I expect happened about two weeks before Ciotta was supposed to turn in her final draft to her editor:
Oh, well, I have laid ... hahaha laid, I'm so clever ... the groundwork for a very complex relationship between my two main characters, and now, it's action-packed! Explosions! Flying horses! Dunkirk is back! Wait, what? Two weeks, you say?? Shit, shit, shit! I have so much more story to tell before it has a satisfying conclusion! I KNOW! I WILL WRITE AN EPILOGUE!!!
The last few chapters are paced at a dizzying speed, and all of the action takes place in a story that Ciotta doesn't tell. Well, she doesn't show us. Nope, we have to watch Willie as she confronts her apparently evil Freak brother, while Gentry and the crew of the Maverick duke it out with Dunkirk and his Flying Shark, which has now been stripped of its Stormerator, now supposedly drowned in a river. I don't even know. I think I was supposed to have my heartstrings tugged when he fell into the water, but I really didn't care either way. Dead or not, my only knowledge of Wesley/Stormerator was that he was the reason that Willie and his mother walked in front of a moving vehicle (instead of, you know, telling her son that she just wouldn't give him the information?) and that he also didn't deliver the letter Willie wrote to Simon those twelve years ago because ... reasons. But even then, it was like the author was all, "Hey, it's time to move on!" because then we just get info-dumped in the final chapter. We discover that Doc Blue from Cowboy has married Tuck's sister (???), people now know that Strangelove and Bingham are the same person, Timblethumper bequeathed his shop to Willie's not-quite-sane father, and Bella Caro's ship went down in Australia while she was looking for Jules. Oh, and Simon and Willie are fine with the fact that their marriage isn't legal because they are truly in love, which whatever, good for them.

Can I just say how much I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaate Ciotta's tactic of simply belching out information, thinking that it's resolution? It's bad enough that she's just setting up her next book with information that has absolutely no effect on this one, but she's not even done telling the story of His Clockwork Canary! I mean, yes, Willie does trust Simon now, and vice versa, and yes, the time travel engine was delivered to the queen. But what the hell is up with Bingham? Why in the hell was he even brought into this (and the first) story? Can Bella Caro teleport? Why did Ciotta feel it was necessary to talk about Doc Blue and Tuck Gentry's sister, Lily (other than pimping the novella with them in it)? Why did Renee shoot Bingham? I HAVE WAY TOO MANY QUESTIONS THAT I'M BORED WITH THAN I SHOULD.

To be honest, I wish that this book had been written primarily as a sci-fi novel with romantic elements. It's painfully obvious that the Glorious Victorious Darcy series is Beth Ciotta's baby; look at how much effort she put into world creation. She's actually brilliant at that part! Had she not tried to force us to believe that this was a romance, perhaps it would have been a much more focused piece of literature. I kind of felt that Ciotta was using Willie as a Mary Sue: she really wanted to be a science fiction writer but was told that, because she has lady parts, she wouldn't get the readership necessary to become successful in that genre. So, instead of assuming a male identity, she earned money in a way she knew she could, by writing various types of romance novels and eventually freeing herself up to create the type of stories that she really wanted to. For many modern writers, it's very difficult to cross genres (thanks, bookstores****!), so - in a continuation of my thought experiment involving Beth Ciotta's career choices - she had to stick with the people who had been reading her books: romance readers. However, in her attempt to combine both genres, she comes across as mediocre at both. Now, this is all supposition on my part. It's just as possible that Ciotta did want to be a romance author; I haven't read any of her other books, so my knowledge of her skills comes from Her Sky Cowboy and His Clockwork Canary. Neither impresses me or drives me to find out more.

Regardless, we're going to read the next one, His Broken Angel+, which shifts to Doc Blue's adventures after he leaves Tucker Gentry's Maverick back in Book One, because I'm a glutton for punishment. Well, and because I'm actually praying that Ciotta continues to improve. I'll give us a little bit to recover from these two books, though. Nobody's that heartless, right?

Thankful that "pebbled buds" wasn't ever used,

Juju (aka Sissybug)

* Now, the race issue is a whole other basket, since I kind of feel that is was glossed over. Of course, Simon and Phin (a character mentioned in Her Sky Cowboy, one of Simon's friends by way of his brother, Jules) stand up to an establishment who refuses to serve Willie because of her being a Freak, and, as I stated above, the queen wouldn't recognize their union. Other than Willie musing about it, it's not really significantly mentioned otherwise.
** I know, I know, Willie was injured, but still.
*** I loved how she just went back to knitting after she shot him.
**** Okay, it's not totally bookstores' faults. I mean, they have to categorize in order to make books easier to browse, but damn, it is still irritating.
+ Based on the excerpt, though, I'm ... not optimistic.

Alrighty, lovers, here's Stef's review! Have at it!

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