Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Clocktaur Wars, by T. Kingfisher

You'll have to excuse me while I fan-girl some more about T. Kingfisher. She just presses all the right buttons for me.

A few facts you need to know about her:

1. She goes by Ursula K. Vernon when she writes graphic novels and kids' books, and they're all fantastic and quite well-known (see: Harriet the Hamster Princess). Anything written as T. Kingfisher is probably not appropriate for readers younger than, say, 13-ish? It's not just that there might be sex, and possibly more daggers through eyes than you might want a younger reader experiencing, but her themes are deeper, her focus is more ... philosophical, for want of a better word. The world is a more complex place, both grimmer and more humane.

2.  She really gets fairy tales. As in, she has obviously imbibed so many, from so many different traditions, that folk-tales run through her veins, but also she has a genuinely weird imagination that works easily with fairy tale logic. The things she comes up with!

3. She is hilariously funny.

Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine—really just one novel broken into two—are a bit different than the others of hers that I've read. Not so much fairy/folk-tale inspired, but more of a re-imagining of the fantasy quest, with a healthy serving of vaguely steampunky Lovecraftian horror thrown in (and if you think that sounds weird, you're right!)

I was sucked in from the first scene, in which a forger fetches a murderer from a dungeon to go on a suicide mission. Oooh, dark, grim, edgy, you're thinking, and yes, it is, but the forger has a mysterious sixth sense that manifests as an allergic reaction, so she's sneezing to death the whole time. Plus her interactions with both the prison warden and the murderer (who is actually a paladin knight who got possessed by a demon, so that's a little complicated) are off-beat and unexpected (by both warden, paladin, and reader), so the whole scene is mind-bogglingly, hilariously interesting.

Then they go off to get the horrifically inventive safety measure that ensures they have to complete the mission (don't want to spoil it for you, but if they don't die trying they will just die painfully), and they meet their team-mate the assassin ("I don't like people unless I'm stabbing them."). Then they meet the 19-year-old self-righteous scholar who's never been outside his monastery and thinks women will turn his bowels to water. Who is also coming on the mission.

So it's the most extreme version of incompatible quest-mates I've ever encountered: the banter and drama is endlessly amusing. (As in, every second sentence made me smile, and every second page I was laughing out loud. Then came the scene with the horses, and I was gasping and wiping tears from my eyes the whole chapter.) Kingfisher knows how to structure a running joke, and that's basically what the whole first book is. (Something along the lines of "I wonder if we're going to kill each other before we even get to the place where we're likely all going to die.")

But, by the end of Clockwork Boys, the trust the four of them have built in each other is as moving as their differences were funny, and I genuinely cared about each one of them and about the fate of the team. Slate, Caliban, Brenner and Learned Edmund kill me in all the best ways, whether they're trying to kill each other or not.

The Wonder Engine is still funny, but it's also an intriguing mystery, a realistic adult romance, and a brilliantly explicated treatise on prejudice and marginalized people. When I wasn't laughing my jaw was dropping. Or I was just straight-up crying, because now these people I care so much about are having serious character development in some seriously tense situations.

Also, most hilarious torture scene ever written.

I think if you like Terry Pratchett you'll probably like T. Kingfisher. She's an auto-buy author for me now; I have yet to be disappointed in anything she's written.

The Clocktaur Wars is a balsamic/maple braised pot roast with red peppers and sweet potatoes (and I threw some kale in because you can hide kale in a sauce this rich and flavourful). Sweet, tangy, not exactly your normal pot roast, but still hits the pot-roast receptor in your brain most satisfyingly.


  1. I have been dipping into her Kingfisher books, and want this one rather a lot!

  2. Ooooh, Wasn't. This. One. AMAZING!?!?! T. Kingfisher is autobuy for me, too. I ADORE her.

  3. I STILL HAVE NOT READ THIS. I finally hopped aboard the Ursula Vernon train after reading some of her short fiction (horrifying!), but my dumb library doesn't have her books and I hate buying books I haven't read yet so: Dilemma. But you are making this sound so so so amazing.

    1. They are on the cheaper side of e-books, if that helps your dilemma at all. I know what you mean about wanting library copies first, though. Libraries everywhere need bigger budgets!

  4. I adore Ursula Vernon so much. I don't know why it really hadn't occurred to me that I would like her adult work just as much-- I mean, it's not like her sense of humor or storytelling abilities would change drastically between the two! You made the reference to Terry Pratchett, and he also was someone I first discovered through his young-audience books but then actually branched out and read the rest (and indeed enjoyed them just as much).