Friday, February 17, 2012

Review: The Doomsday Vault

Saw this book sitting in the new releases shelf of Barnes and Noble's scifi/fantasy section a few weeks ago, and bought it on impulse. This is something I very rarely do when it comes to books. So here: enjoy a review of a lovely little steampunk novel by some guy named Steven Harper.

The Doomsday Vault proudly touts itself as the first novel in a series called "Clockwork Empire," which is something of a misnomer, seeing as the book ends with the heroes leaving the British Empire (spoiler alert).

Harper's Clockwork Empire (not to be confused with Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century, Jay Lake's Clockwork Earth, or Anthony Burgess' Clockwork Orange) is an alternate history setting where humanity has been struck by the horrific Clockwork Plague, which is not an empire, century, earth, or orange. The Clockwork Plague causes its victims to turn into mindless, decaying, shambling creatures who spread the infection with a touch.

Alright. Thief did this. Boneshaker did this. Sucker Punch did this. Now this book is doing it. I have to ask: why do so many people feel the need to mix Steampunk with zombies? I mean, if I had to pick one movie monster that meshed well with the Steampunk style, I'd pick Frankenstein's Monster. It's already a patchwork creature born from nineteenth century mad science. Why zombies? Are fantastical steam-powered machines too boring without the hordes of the undead to spice things up? Or is it just because zombies and Steampunk both sit fairly close to the top of the list of Things Nerds Like?

Anyway, in extremely rare cases, the Clockwork Plague does not turn infectees into zombies, but rather makes them into mad scientists called Clockworkers. Clockworkers are ridiculously smart, are driven by an insatiable need to invent things, and generally die after a few years of building doomsday devices. Then, presumably, they turn into giant mechanical owls with a hatred for raccoon thieves.

They keep themselves alive for centuries on a steady diet of jealousy and hate.

Enter our two heroes: Alice B. Michaels, the daughter of an English Baron who has fallen on extremely difficult financial times, and Gavin Ennock, a guy from Boston whose hobbies include flying on airships, playing the violin, and narrowly avoiding being raped by pirates.

Let's talk about Alice first, since she is the more interesting of the two. In a setting such as this, standard practice is to write the female lead as someone who is inexplicably against the culture they were raised in and the gender roles that they have been taught all their lives to accept. They insist that women are more than just pretty little babymakers, even though no one else has ever challenged that notion before, and they have no grounds to build their beliefs on (feminism in the real world certainly wasn't spontaneous; it slowly evolved over a couple of centuries to make progressively larger changes. Compare the mid-1800's feminists with the 1970's feminists). Harper instantly wins my respect by turning this tired old cliche on its head. There are feminists who preach womanly awesomeness in this setting (in fact the in-universe term for them is "ad hoc women") but Alice is not one of them. Instead of standing on a soapbox to preach these ideals, Alice is portrayed as conflicted about them. A large part of her is scandalized by these women who do such unthinkable things as vote and wear trousers, but a small part of her is very intrigued. However, she was born into the traditional high-class society, and has been raised accordingly. No matter how interested she may be in pursuing non-traditionally-feminine activities, she still feels strongly tied to preserving the honor of her family. This is great. It makes Alice a believable and interesting character, struggling with a changing social order. Her steadfast insistence on remaining proper clashing with her more tomboyish nature makes for a very interesting character conflict.

...And then, about three-fourths of the way through the book, that conflict is resolved. In fact, most of the conflicts in the novel are resolved at that point. The will-they-or-won't-they sexual tension between Alice and Gavin is also resolved at that point (Gavin doesn't get a paragraph of description because he is too dull.), and instead the novel focuses on its main plot, which, while interesting, really isn't enough to carry the whole thing by itself. Especially with how horrifyingly saccharine the dialogue gets at this point.

You see, resolving the romantic subplot so early and in such a doggone happy manner just leaves the two lovebirds with no way of speaking to one another that isn't full of sickeningly sweet terms of endearment. Harper does try to inject some disagreements to prevent the relationship from going smoothly, but those disagreements are resolved in roughly a page. And then it's back to the oh-Gavins and the oh-Alices.

I know from checking his credentials that this is not Steven Harper's first book, so he really should know better by now: Conflict is the essence of drama. That's like one of the Cardinal Rules of writing. You need conflict to keep things interesting. That's why George R.R. Martin relentlessly tortures his characters. That's why it took like three or four seasons for Shaun and Jules to get together on Psych. That's why the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer felt they needed to contrive a poorly-explained reason for Xander to leave Anya at the altar. Conflict.

Admittedly not the best example, given how poorly it was handled, but still.

The conflict in the Alice-Gavin subplot just... evaporates while there's still like 100 pages left. It becomes boring.

I will, however, praise the Alice-Gavin plotline for one detail: this a couple that kicks ass. In most action stories with official couples, usually one half of the couple spends a lot of time saving the other half. Not... well, actually Alice does save Gavin a lot, but Gavin also saves her just as much. They basically take turns saving each other, and I really like the way it plays. It makes them like equals, rather than one being superior to the other.

The astute reader may have noticed that I've spent a lot of time talking about the romantic subplot, and that's because, to be honest, the rest of the book is kind of forgettable. I read it a few weeks ago, and all I can remember are how the love plot plays out, a couple of early scenes, the big plot twist 75% of the way through, and the ending.

Now, I wouldn't say that The Doomsday Vault is a bad book. It is by no means a bad book. But it's not going to go down in history as a Steampunk classic either. Still, it's enjoyable and it managed to hold my interest all the way through, so if you enjoy Steampunk and/or zombies, then I would recommend it. Just don't expect to be blown away.

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