Monday, September 15, 2014

Lord of the Pings

Beth Cato, The Clockwork Dagger: A Novel

In a 2010 episode of the TV drama Castle, the title character calls steampunk “a subculture that embraces the simplicity and romance of the past, but at the same time couples it with the hope and promise and sheer super coolness of futuristic design.” Whatever. Most steampunk I’ve read deeply distrusts modernity, foregrounding a premature collision between technology and tradition. Usually, it contrasts bucolic purity with polluted, overcrowded cities.

Debut author Beth Cato commences her first novel by having her heroine, Octavia Leander, resuscitate a puppy that’s been struck by a steam carriage. Octavia is a “medician,” a healer who channels power from The Lady and hears human vital functions as music. Think the Greek healer Asclepius, filtered through an ambiguously pagan/Christian hybrid religion. This opener starkly contrasts her religious healing with the city’s scientistic agnosticism.

Fine. But as an opener, it directly heeds Blake Snyder’s ubiquitous screenwriting guide, Save the Cat!. Snyder demands our protagonists do something stupidly selfless immediately, to establish heroic credentials; he specifically recommends rescuing a small, defenseless animal. Octavia dodges traffic, squanders her limited healing herbs, and returns the puppy to a squalling child—only to discover the puppy’s probably dinner, not a pet. Her heroism, and modernity’s wickedness, established.

Blake Snyder has quickly become the bane of my existence. Having made movies and TV scripts essentially interchangeable, his influence continues bleeding into literature, especially mass-market genre fiction; he’ll probably submarine theatre next. Pretty good for a guy who died in 2009. If, like me, you’ve wondered why new novels in the genre you grew up loving have become carbon-copy indistinguishable since about 2005, blame Blake Snyder. I do.

Cato’s premiere hits all the right notes. Whether that’s good or bad, you decide. Her Perils of Pauline-ish narrative sequence advances briskly through time-tested challenges, cranking out revelations painfully familiar from similar paperback potboilers. Readers seeking cozy, low-resistance literature will find Cato reassuringly intimate. I read this book quickly, mainly around lunch breaks and bedtimes, returning easily after stopping mid-chapter, because I felt I’d read it many times before.

Orphaned during wartime, Octavia trained as a medician, and served at the front. Now she’s traveling by zeppelin to her new career, healing a pox-stricken village. But several passengers, including a dashing young steward and a clingy salesman, take unwarranted interest in Octavia’s skills. When somebody makes an attempt on her life, she realizes she’s on no ordinary journey. Octavia must heal her wounded world while fighting for her life.

The zeppelin’s confined quarters, I’ll concede, make a smart setting. Because it offers few hiding places, and is vulnerable to sabotage, every action becomes freighted with potential. But Cato does exactly what we’d expect with her setting; despite her boundless potential, she never catches us by surprise. If George RR Martin and Agatha Christie had a baby, and that baby had ambitions to be well-liked, it might resemble this book.

Characterization might help. Cato staunchly follows Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters: if she introduces characters by name, they’ll prove significant. If she doesn’t, they won’t. Thus a crowd of interchangeable extras and spear-carriers remain compliantly quiet. Besides one husband-and-wife duo, who primarily annoy Octavia, every named character does something plot-twisty. Cato’s Americanized attempts to phonetically spell Dickensian accents don’t help this characterization. Can anybody really say “’tis” that often?

Then Cato denies characters time to think. At 350 pages, her book is fairly moderate length, but covers only about five days, meaning action is mostly continuous. But the majority of chapters end with some jolt moment: explosions, gunfire, or character revelations. If there’s an open window, there’ll be a push; if there’s a sudden machine sound, it’ll try killing somebody. The unrelenting pace, though well intentioned, left me tired.

Throughout, Octavia preaches the evils of technology. The city’s chugging steam carriages, poverty, and irreligion contrast to her pastoralism, beauty, and faith. Characters proselytize science to Octavia, but she remains obstinately primordial. Since circumstances conspire to vindicate Octavia’s faith, her opinion presumably wins, though sequels will tell. (Beth Cato lives near Phoenix, Arizona, a city desperately dependent on cars, steel-frame construction, and imported water.)

Beth Cato crafts a debut novel you could wrap around yourself like a Snuggie, feeling comforted by its easy familiarity. Despite my criticisms, it isn’t bad. Some people want the package tour, everything pre-screened and verified safe. Cato means well; she just makes obvious choices. She doesn’t press herself, and by extension us, past the mass-media storylines we already know by heart.

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