Something Lighter than Air

A friend of mine was telling me about their concept for a novel.  It was pretty fascinating and I won’t let it slip.  However, it ended up reminding me of a book I picked up on a recommendation years ago.  This is Clockwork Heart by Dru Pagliassotti. The friend who recommended it must’ve picked it up when it was still fairly new, because I had trouble believing that it’s almost ten years old now.  There were some hints in the writing which clued me in and prompted me to check the date, but still.  Time flies when you’re reading all the time.

Clockwork Heart is probably my favorite steampunk novel.  In the city of Ondinium lives Taya Icarus.  And yes, her job is to fly around the city with her ondium wings, carrying messages to and fro.  Though she is capable of carrying much more, as the opening chapter sees her attempt a daring rescue of a mother and child trapped on a crashed funicular.  (The book calls them wireferries, but you may not have read this book.)

The two rescuees are members of the exalted caste – and this caste system bears some resemblance to the one India is known for.  One is born into the caste their previous lives have proven them worthy of, though some movement is permitted.  Each castemember has a tattoo on their face to make their rank obvious: famulates have a circle on their foreheads, lictors a stripe on their cheeks, programmers a spiral on their right cheek, and exalteds a wave on each cheek.  Icarii have no tattoos, and have freedom of the castes as they travel to and fro.  This is worth noting in the case of the exalteds who suffer “ostentatious incapacitation,” wearing masks and cumbersome robes to conceal themselves from lesser beings.  Only icarii are accustomed to seeing the highest rank maskless.

I mentioned that there are programmers in this world, but their computers are far more rudimentary than the one I’m using to type this, or the one you’re using to read it.  These are steam-powered engines that read punch cards, and they are the heart of the city.  It’s not made super clear how they are used, but they are basic computers that can analyze whatever data is input.  The Heart of the city is the Great Engine, a massive piece of machinery with the highest computing power of all.  It lies in the center of a mountain, floating in its hollow chamber.

How can it float?  Remember that ondium I mentioned?  This special metal is lighter than air and more valuable than gold.  It is the material which enables the icarii to fly, when properly counterweighted.  It is one of the city’s greatest resources, the other being her people of course.

It’s a fascinating world, and a decently-written book.  The more I reread analytically, the more questions I raise about things we know in our world and whether or not they’d actually be found in Ondininum, but today I opted to take things at face value.

Also apparently this is a series now.  I believe I need to acquire the newer books and remedy my ignorance of their content.  Maybe I should put those B&N giftcards to good use on this…


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