When I first heard Neil Peart would collaborate with author Kevin J. Anderson on a fiction project connected to the latest Rush album, I was intrigued. For about two years, since the release of the band’s single “Caravan,” we waited for something – anything – resembling a larger project that might necessitate a tour for support. The hardcore fan base saw that wish realized with the release of Clockwork Angels the album (which I do enjoy) and the corresponding novel of the same name, which crafts the various themes of Peart’s songs into a story that blends steampunk and fantastic imagery with the humanist ideals for which the band is known.
If you follow Rush religiously (sorry), you may find the former elements curious, since steampunk isn’t something one would associate with them. Having browsed Anderson’s bibliography, steampunk doesn’t appear to be a major genre for him, and I would hesitate to place Clockwork Angels the novel solely in this category. As I read the story I didn’t get a true sense of time to go with the settings – odd considering time is a primary theme. One could see this as a fantasy or dystopian adventure as well.
Anderson and Peart’s clockwork world is comprised of a few major continents and cities with names drawn from mythology and ancient tradition: Posiedon City, Atlantis, and Albion…an ancient name for the island of Great Britain. Here the people seem more apt to pursue manual labor, save for those who study at the Alchemy College. We are told that the country of Albion had suffered turmoil and crime before the appearance of the benevolent and enigmatic Watchmaker. For the following two hundred years through the present day, Owen’s bucolic home of Barrel Arbor, the more cosmopolitan Crown City, and surrounding villages live in peace and punctuality. You can literally set your watch by everything that happens, from the distribution of national news to changes in the weather. All is for the best, as the Watchmaker is known to proclaim, and few people argue with those words.
The two who do challenge this order have different motives. Owen seeks adventure and the opportunity to live out a story he can tell his grandchildren one day; the legendary Clockwork Angels who parrot the Watchmaker’s maxims draw him to Crown City, and the wonder of a traveling carnival entices him to extend his journey. The story’s antagonist, the Anarchist, creates havoc in hopes of waking people to the realization that the Watchmaker doesn’t exactly have Albion’s best interests at heart. The way he carries on, of course, makes one wonder if the Anarchist’s view of the world is any better.
In keeping with the story’s connection to Clockwork Angels the album, an assortment of song lyrics and characters provide ample references, perhaps a bit much. A reader more familiar with Anderson’s work than Rush’s may be able to breeze through the book without making many connections, but I have to admit I found the Easter egg-style lines distracting at times. Anderson doesn’t limit himself to the recent album, either, in this respect. A character shouts, “Presto!” and I know there’s more to it than the parlor trick he’s performing.
What disappoints me more about this book, however, is the overall style. Between the many instances of telling instead of showing (and this is not another song reference) and repetitiveness of narrative and dialogue (more than once the author has Owen recapping his adventures and echoing lines) made it difficult for me to appreciate the story. I get the impression, too, that maybe the author hoped to attract the YA reading audience in addition to Rush’s older fan base. Owen’s young age and the dialogue may imply that, but I think of other books I’ve read in the dystopian YA genre (most notably The Hunger Games) and find them more sophisticated in style and dialogue.
Clockwork Angels had the potential to deliver a thought-provoking adventure, but the writing just didn’t grab me. When I think of the other Anderson/Peart collaboration, the story “Drumbeats” (reviewed on this blog), I find I enjoyed that more. For its length, “Drumbeats” is a tighter story with better dialogue – it is also in first person, which makes me wonder if Anderson had attempted Clockwork Angels in that POV would the story be improved.
Will you like this book more if you’re a Rush fan? You certainly don’t have to be one to read it. The book hasn’t changed my perception of the album, but I do know I’ll revisit the songs more than the story.
Kathryn Lively is a mystery author and a book blogger.