Clockwork Angels The Novel by Kevin J Anderson, from a story and lyrics by Neil Peart.
Published by ECW Press, September 2012 (Review copy received)
ISBN: 978 1 77041 121 0
Review by Mark Yon
Don’t know how much of this is known at SFFWorld, but I am a big fan of RUSH, the Canadian rock band recently celebrating over 35 years of activity. As I type, I have a signed album copy of their album Hold Your Fire over my desk. (It’s not their most exciting cover, but I like it, even more so the album, and the signatures stand out all the more because of its simplicity.)
There’s been quite a bit of excitement in the fact that their latest album, their twentieth, is a full-blown concept album. Their most famous album, 2112, only had one side as a concept, admittedly about 20 minutes long. (Pause here to explain to younger readers how ‘a side’ on a vinyl record works.) So the latest album CD, named Clockwork Angels, is currently getting generally very good reviews, and not just from me.
My point of raising all this here is that this is the book the new album is based around: or the book based on the ideas of the album, if you catch my drift. Combining the ideas of RUSH drummer and lyricist Neil Peart with the writing skills of author Kevin J. Anderson, the book is intended as an accompaniment to the band’s album.
Such ambitious ideas can often fail. So with a little trepidation, and the CD blasting away loudly, I started to read.
Plot Summary: In the world of Albion, Owen Hardy, assistant orchard manager in the small village of Barrel Arbor, is, at the age of sixteen, about to become an adult. In his safe, ordered world, known as the Stability, this means settling down in a secure lifestyle knowing where he is and what he will be, managing the apple orchard and being married to his sweetheart Lavinia.
However, Owen always thinks big: and in his imagination he thinks about the world outside Barrel Arbour: and in particular that of Crown City where The Watchmaker lives, the guardian of Order who runs the world like clockwork – settled, peaceful and organised. With The Regulators, The Watchmaker runs the city, as the country, in a kind of benevolent dictatorship.
Owen is taken by a whim when he is offered a ride by a mysterious individual on a steampunk dirigible, a steamliner, which is travelling to Crown City. There he is determined to see the sights, and see the Clockwork Angels: huge mechanised guardians who give out laws that rule Albion for the Watchmaker. We discover that The Watchmaker is watching Owen closely whilst travelling Albion disguised as The Pedlar. The reason for his secret identity is clear – as The Pedlar, the Watchmaker asks people “What do you lack?” in order to determine their true feelings about his efforts, so that he can make their lives better.
However not all of the populace are content. There are agents determined to overturn the order – The Anarchist, described as a “freedom extremist”, feels that such an ordered society creates complacency and is a means of limiting creativity which is therefore something to be destroyed. His steamliner bombing campaigns and graffiti around the city remind the populace to question authority.
Secondly, The Wreckers are disrupting the natural order of sea-traffic by causing boats laden with goods to crash and then be looted. Owen finds himself encountering both in his travels.
When Owen arrives in the city he quickly spends what little money he has, and joins the travelling circus. There he meets the free-spirited trapeze artist Francesca and learns to juggle. Travelling around Albion with such people who are not restricted to the usual restrictions of time, Owen sees the troupe as his extended family and begins to question what he has up to now always believed.
Spurned by Francesca, Owen still attends the Summer Solstice celebrations in Chronos Square where the Magnusson Carnival Extravaganza has been booked to perform. There Owen meets his benefactor, who we now realise is The Anarchist. The freedom extremist is determined to cause chaos and bring down The Watchmaker.
Stopping The Anarchist’s attempt at terrorism, Owen finds himself accused of being The Anarchist. Escaping from Crown City, Owen sails the seas until he comes to Atlantis, and Poseidon City, a place run in a less ordered manner than Crown City. Saved from a backstreet beating by Commodore Pangloss, Owen boards a steamliner and goes off to find Cibola, the legendary Seven Cities of Gold. Crossing the Redrock Desert, Owen discovers them, though they are not what most people expect.
Returning to society, Owen meets up again with Commodore Pangloss and then boards a cargo steamer to cross the sea and return to Albion. The boat is caught and destroyed by the Wreckers, although Owen is kept alive. It seems he is wanted by both The Watchmaker and The Anarchist as essential to their cause. Owen decides that he is unhappy with either philosophy and as an act of free will decides to follow a destiny of his own choosing.
The answer in the end is simple: do what you can in life to be satisfied with your life but don’t be complacent. The way forward is to do what you think is right, wish those who don’t agree with you well but follow your dreams.
END OF STORY SYNOPSIS.
Reading the book does create some questions: does the book stand on its own without the music? Can the book be enjoyed without the music? Yes, on both counts.
There’s some really neat genre ideas at play here. A medieval or steam-punk society, in varying states of development, is the background to what we would normally see as a typical rites of passage novel. There’s the struggle between chaos and order, free will and responsibility, imagination and reality.
As a piece of genre fiction, it is as you would expect from that synopsis above – a fairly straightforward tale, well written, that looks at some great big ideas but shouldn’t scare off the casual reader. We’re not talking intense Mieville-ean debate here, more Terry Brooks entertainment. There’s a touch of Ray Bradbury in its use of the carnival as a place of security as well as fear, a smidgen of techno-magic in its coldfire energy, steampunk airships and clockwork guardians, a hint at quantum universes along the way. It would work well for a Young Adult audience, though it’s entertaining enough for adults.
Having these quite well known ideas is not too important; it’s what the authors do with them that counts. Though some of the ideas are used and then dropped without being developed too far, generally it is a great page-turner.
RUSH fans are going to appreciate the sneaky references to the band’s work: Coldfire engines, malignant narcissism, lyrics from other RUSH albums (‘Free Will’, ‘Time Stand Still’, ‘Roll the Bones’) and so on. You don’t have to get them, but it is a lot of fun and I like the idea that band-fans are going to be trying to find them all.
RUSH have always been a band with great, intelligent lyrics and ideas throughout their songs, and there are some concepts here should you choose to find them. The importance of identity, of reaching your personal goals, of obtaining your childhood desires if you work for them, are all there, as too bigger issues such as the importance of society and the difficulties of being in a repressive one. The importance of imagination, the need for the soul to explore – to progress and to evolve as a person, to think for yourself and question – these are all important ideas here, and topics that have been used by RUSH before.
Neil, as the main lyricist of the band, has clearly had more input here than some other authors I can think of who put their names on book covers written by other people. It is clearly a collaboration, and both creative talents have clearly enjoyed this experience.
There’s a lot here to enjoy, and even those who don’t know the music (now is your chance, go and look!) will enjoy the story.
In addition, there’s copies of the song lyrics from the CD at the back, showing how the songs follow the story and an entertaining Afterword by Neil about how the book was written. Referencing influences such as Voltaire’s Candide (1759) it’s as thoughtful and as intelligent as you could hope.
I should also mention that throughout there’s also Hugh Syme’s artwork to illustrate. Though my review copy had black and white copies, I gather the ‘proper’ book will have colour plates. Fans of RUSH’s albums will recognise the artist’s style – he’s created most of their artwork for their albums since 1975. It’s lush, detailed and imaginative, and complements the prose admirably.
I had my doubts that this wouldn’t work – I’m pleased to type that they are mostly wrong. If my worst fears were realised, this could have been some sort of horrible, cynical, heartless cash-in.
I’m so pleased that it is not.
Mark Yon, August 2012