Bestselling science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson has written over 100 novels, including spin-off novels for Star Wars, The X-Files, and others. This, however, a collaboration with Rush drummer Neil Peart, may be the most unique in his considerable oeuvre. Adapting Rush’s Clockwork Angels album into a full-blown steampunk novel, Anderson succeeds in crafting a thoroughly entertaining read.
After a well-crafted––and dreamlike––prologue (it begins: “It seems like a lifetime ago––which, of course, it was … all that and more. A good life, too, thought it didn’t always feel that way”), we meet our hero, young Owen Hardy, who lives in the small town of Barrel Arbor and dreams of the world beyond his immediate sight. We find him with Lavinia––“his true love and perfect match”–– and his father, and the other villagers who live under the Stability, where “All is for the best”. There, he contemplates a life in which “He had done what was expected of him rather than what he wanted; every day mapped out, every even scheduled, every part of his existence moving along like a tiny gear in an infinite chain of other tiny gears, each one turning smoothing but never going anywhere.” Thus, he craves adventure and, when Lavinia does not show up for a planned late-night meeting, he vows that he will do something exciting instead, as he may never have the chance again.
In the night Crown City, the Clockwork Angels, the Watchmaker’s tower, and so much more beckon to him and so, when the opportunity presents itself, he begins his long and circuitous journey. He engages in his first intellectual discussion with a man who questions the wisdom of the Watchmaker, the use of the Clockwork Angels, and the purpose of the Stability––“A statue has stability,” the stranger says, “A living creature requires freedom.”
The Watchmaker, we learn, has ruled for more than two centuries, transforming Crown City from “a riot of smokestacks and slums” into something more majestic, having “imposed order”, giving the people “a place, showing them straight lines, inviting them to follow the mystic rhythms of the universe”. He also keeps his eyes on Owen Hardy, who quickly finds himself cast out from Crown City and in the arms of a carnival––and a young woman and, shortly thereafter, face-to-face with the Anarchist in one of the novel’s most potent scenes.
From there, the novel grows somewhat darker as Owen’s naïveté recedes––he finds the disarray of Poseidon City, travels with the remarkable Commodore Pangloss, finds himself in the Seven Cities of Gold, and an encounter with pirates. Anderson takes the reader along for the adventure with a swift certainty of a natural storyteller.
If there are a few passages here and there that strike the reader as clumsy––“When Owen awakened, he was very much surprised to find himself still alive––which should have been no surprise; otherwise he wouldn’t have awakened in the first place”––the sense of adventure more than makes up for them. (One should mention that the narrative has plenty of brief blasts of Rush lyrics––a feature that readers will either find incredibly endearing or mildly annoying.
We, like Owen, are tossed between chaos and control repeatedly throughout the story, arriving at the end, exhausted, and better for the journey.
A few words about the physicality of the book also seem in order––from its font to the illustrations provided by Hugh Syme, the man who has created all those memorable Rush album covers, to the inclusion of Peart’s lyrics, the physical book is beautiful, inviting, and the perfect vessel for the story it contains.
Peart––who has authored several fine books––has penned an afterword, detailing the process of the collaboration between he and Anderson: How they worked to bring the drummer’s idea to life in such a way that it might recall the work of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells, how they fleshed out the “necessarily ‘brisk’” pacing that Peart had established via the lyrics. No mystery is lost in this explanation. Instead, it adds extra warmth to the volume, as we celebrate the artist celebrating another success.