Author: Beth Cato
Genre: fantasy, steampunk
Length: 368 pages
Publisher: Harper Voyager (2014)
MY RATING: 4.5 stars
Octavia Leander is not the typical fantasy protagonist. She’s a healer who draws on her own deep connection with a divinity called The Lady to restore the health of anyone in need of her help. She’s adverse to violence, charitable, and somewhat naive. Her internal monologue shows off the sharp wit and depth that sometimes she avoids speaking aloud.
The setting is the kingdom of Caskentia, where technology is roughly comparable to our early 1900s: airships, diesel-powered light aircraft, mechanical carriages. The social mores are rather similar as well. Religion has less pull: it is an age of scientific progress. There is room for strong female personalities, but women are expected to have a certain place (Octavia both chafes against and takes advantage of this as she can).
The country is embroiled in a bitter war with the Wastes, its eastern part, across the mountains that is fighting for independence. The backstory involves a kidnapped princess, assassins, and underhanded plots, but the narrative here is focused entirely on Octavia’s journey to the quiet village where she hopes to put her traumatic past behind her.
To avoid spoilers, I will say that things don’t quite work out the way she’d planned. Her mentor Miss Perceval warned her to avoid men, showing off her powers, and overtaxing her limited traveling funds. She breaks all three rules in short order, meets a variety of interesting people (and one special gremlin), and learns more about herself and her place in the world.
The things I liked the most. There’s a single POV. It worked really well. Octavia has a unique view of her world because of her morality (do no harm, let none suffer, more or less) and the effects of her magical powers that let her hear if there’s something wrong medically with someone. Her self-doubt even while miraculously healing an injured person. Her occasional comparisons of her misadventures to a pulp novel. The realistic portrayal of Alonzo’s physical disability–and how he does not let it stop him from doing anything. Mrs. Stout’s voice of reason and the friendship that develops between her and Octavia. How the author explains at just the right point in the story how all these unlikely coincidences are actually part of a nefarious plot. A strong narrative voice and a good balance of internal monologue and interesting characters with initially unclear motives.
The Waster insurgency is presented in a pretty balanced way: the Wasters use brutal tactics, including unleashing plagues and kidnapping young women; the Queen of Caskentia doesn’t exactly inspire great feelings of devotion in her subjects for her equally brutal tactics. In doing so, the author raises some questions worth pondering about war, suffering, and politics writ large.
The one thing I had something of a problem with was the romantic subplot that ran through the novel. Octavia develops feelings for the airship steward Alonzo, one of the first people she meets on leaving Miss Perceval’s school. Their meeting is later in the novel explained as no coincidence, but she seemed to have fallen for him a bit too quickly, too easily. Just a bit. Their relationship unfolds in a believable manner, but feels a bit too forced by the author in the beginning.
I have the sequel, The Clockwork Crown. I’m excited to see where Octavia’s adventures take her next. I’ll let you know once I’m done with it.