I haven’t been around much in June, because I was organising and running a conference on top of my day job – this was a first for me, and it turns out it’s very professionally fulfilling, but also time-devouring and stressful (especially if like me you have no background in event management). Anyway, all this to say that I have been reading my 15 Books of Summer, but have not been reviewing them because every time I sat down at a computer in the last month I remembered more emails that I needed to send. Thankfully, the conference is now over and my free time is once more actually free. I now have to try and review all the books that I read in June from memory, because I forgot to make any notes!
The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola is a fascinating alternate history of Paris in 1750, during the reign of Louis XV. At the start of the novel, the central character, Madeleine, lives and works in the brothel run by her abusive mother, as has been the case since she was forced into this work as a child. Understandably, she hates her life, but she endures for two reasons: firstly, she loves her now-orphaned young nephew Emile and has promised she will look after him; also, she can’t imagine where or how she would run to if she tried to escape. When her mother’s powerful client, the Chief of Police, recruits her as that most hated of creatures, a police informer, Madeleine knows it’s foolish and dangerous – but the opportunity to leave the brothel, and to be paid enough to help both herself and Emile escape to a better life, proves too tempting to resist. Her task is clear: she is to infiltrate the household of Dr Reinhart, surgeon and clockmaker, by posing as his daughter Véronique’s maid. Reinhart is a brilliant man, particularly skilled at making animal automata, but is suspected of unnatural experiments and inventions – perhaps, some people are whispering, even black magic. Madeleine is to investigate these claims and report whatever she finds to the police.
I don’t want to get too caught up in explaining the plot, which is difficult to summarise without spoilers, but it concerns a mysterious new project that Reinhart is asked to carry out. He and Véronique, whom he is training as his apprentice, become very absorbed in the new project while all the while Madeleine is trying to work out what’s going on without anyone catching her. However, the more she investigates, the more she wonders. Though they’re odd, Madeleine can’t find any evidence that there are nefarious goings-on – but she’s convinced Reinhart is up to something, she just can’t work out what. At the same time as Madeleine’s investigations are running, children are being taken from the streets of Paris – initially street children, but gradually tradesmen’s children too. Wild rumours circulate, most placing the blame squarely with the King and Madame de Pompadour – all of which is contributing to a build up on tension on the streets of Paris that could spill over into terrible consequences. Is this connected to what Madeleine has been asked to do? Is Reinhart somehow involved – or is it all just a coincidence?
I really enjoyed this novel. It’s told in close third person perspective with three point-of-view characters: Madeleine, her mistress Veronique, and Jeanne aka Madame de Pompadour. Madeleine is the main character, and I thought she was believable as a product of her appalling circumstances but also very enjoyable to spend time with. The other two characters are also well-drawn, as are the side characters. Sometimes I find that having multiple perspectives in a mystery doesn’t work at all, as the author has to work to conceal information that would naturally be available to one of the characters – but I thought Mazzola did a great job. We get enough in Veronique’s point of view for us to understand some of her behaviour, but not enough for us to know what’s actually going on. The same is true of Dr Reinhart, though he’s not a point-of-view character. Since he’s the primary person under investigation, it’s necessary for him to remain something of an enigma. In a lot of books someone who has to stay mysterious suffers from it in terms of character development, but I thought he was given enough to make him seem like a real and interesting person – again without revealing whether or not the reader should trust him. I guessed parts of the mystery, but that’s not really the point of the book, which I think is why the multiple viewpoints works so well.
What with the creepy houses – the brothel, Reinhart’s home, and Versailles, where Jeanne is based – and the sense of foreboding and mystery, this feels much more like a gothic novel with incidental steampunk elements than it does a straightforward fantasy novel. Although I like both science fiction and fantasy, I’m not normally a steampunk person – but this was on the right side of the line for me. I think anything remotely steampunk can get silly pretty quickly – but this stayed tense and chilling throughout, without me ever rolling my eyes at the automata, and I think the excellent settings are a part of that. Paris really came alive on the page, as did the various homes and residences. Versailles in particular was a triump – the glamorous exterior and rotten interior both very well-rendered. The same is true of the Parisian streets, and I thought Véronique’s and Madeleine’s different perspectives were used to great effect to explore that: Véronique hardly knows Paris at all, having been educated at a convent since she was a young child, but to the extent that she does know it, it’s a very different Paris from the one Madeleine grew up in. I think this is probably true of any city, but certainly any one with such extraordinary inequality. This, along with the characters, is probably what makes this such an effective novel.
Overall, I enjoyed this tremendously. Mazzola has a couple of previous novels – The Unseeing, set in Victorian London, and The Story Keeper, set on the Isle of Skye towards the end of the Highland Clearances. Both sound very interesting, and I will probably be picking at least one up before the end of the year!