So who’s up for a book rant about alchemy, childhood trauma, steampunkery and necromancy? Oh yeah, there’s also a giant rabbit.
Refill your tea tankards and grab your cuddliest plushies, because here comes a novel centered around the question “What if instead of ‘Who wants to live forever,’ or ‘Can we change lead to gold,’ we just use alchemy to make something out of nothing and create murder and mechanical mayhem in the process?”
Book: Mechanics of the Past by K. A. Ashcomb
Series: Glorious Mishaps, No. 3
Genre: Steampunk Fantasy
Content for the Sensitive Reader: frequent PG-13 language, necromancy, kidnapping, murder, witchcraft, spirit possession, seduction, nudity, clearly implied sexual encounters, emotionally (and possibly physically) abusive family relationships, some thematic/violent scenes, incestual attraction, gambling, casual alcohol use. Discretion is strongly advised for younger audiences.
BookmarkedOne Rating: 4/10
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book via Booktasters and the author in exchange for an honest review. All opinions herein are my own. Did I mention I got a free book? Because that’s awesome.
SPOILERS CLEARLY MARKED–READ AT YOUR OWN RISK
I really wanted to love this book. There are some really nice things to be said about it. Even before I knew this was the third book, I was impressed by how Ashcomb just throws the reader into the deep end and expects them to figure things out as they go. Harriet Stowe enslaving someone in the name of greater peace? Sorry, that’s backstory. You’ll just have to wonder about it. The very first paragraph? Already in the middle of a heist. Main characters? En route to their destination, in the middle of something you don’t fully understand. And there are also little phrases like the reference to Moby Dick and “the real McCoy” that make you wonder just what combination of reality and possibility, the familiar and the strange, that this world is made of. Not to mention the things that are entirely Ashcomb’s, like “get my octopuses in a row.” And I haven’t seen someone have this much fun with footnotes since Nanny Piggins.
So what’s not to like?
Well, for starters, I’m not a big fan of swearing in books. That’s my personal pet peeve that’s probably going to be reserved for an explanatory post of its own one day. So I’ll try to set that aside for now and look at the writing instead.
Let’s begin with the characters.
A warning: there are a lot of characters in this book. And the book changes focalization every chapter, switching viewpoints from character to character, which can be…difficult. I think Sigourney Perri is the protagonist, but I could be wrong. I counted eight different focalized characters, and frankly, I might have missed one. Just so you’re prepared.
On to introductions!
- Margaret. The book opens with the reader looking through Margaret’s eyes, and to keep from spoiling too much, I’ll just say it’s a good move. She’s violent. Deliciously so. And Ashcomb tells you just enough in that opening to keep you guessing, keep you curious about what’s going on, wondering what the stakes are but feeling their height–I have a thing for heists, okay? In retrospect, I’m actually wishing Margaret were a more important character…but hey, that’s just me.
- Sigourney Perri. Anyway, as soon as Margaret’s done in the prologue, we jump to our girl, this shy thing with major social anxiety, childhood trauma, way too much guilt, and the literal ability to disappear. For all that it’s a little depressing to read her berating herself the whole time, Sigourney is the easiest for me to relate to, and she’s also one of the most dynamic characters.
- Siarl. With Sigourney comes her “plus one,” Siarl Ellis, and her luck/personal deity/pet, the Rabbit. I wanted to like Siarl more than I did. But we’re introduced to him in the middle of “we-have-been-on-the-road-so-long-can-we-please-get-out-are-we-there-yet” headache and argument combo…which is not flattering for the best and most brilliant of characters. Sigourney says he’s brilliant and kind and idealistic, but then she would, wouldn’t she? She’s supposed to be in love with him. I didn’t buy it. It isn’t until the last few chapters of the book that he actually starts to be useful, let alone a well-rounded character.
- The Rabbit, Sigourney’s second traveling companion. He seems protective of Sigourney, almost like her dad. A ridiculously irresponsible alcoholic dad, but hey. And when we say “The Rabbit?” He’s actually a rabbit. Really, all we could ask for is steampunk with a giant shapeshifting bunny. I mean, what more do you want? Oh yeah, he’s also the “god of luck.” In the most amusingly chaotic way possible.
- Rose Pettyshare: a willful banker from Necropolis (apparently the necromancy capital of the world, city of the dead, full of fog and octopuses–which we unfortunately don’t visit in the book). She’s a charming, independent little banker woman who takes fencing lessons, doesn’t like corsets, and makes too much trouble to fit in. Delightful, right? Unfortunately, she’s also a greedy little jerk. I’m incredibly regretful about that point. I actually liked Rose. But although she’s surprising in the lengths she’ll go to, in the end she doesn’t change at all–SPOILER–at the end of the book, she’s gambling all her money away just as she finally got out of debt. Of all the characters, I should dislike her the most because she sees no problem with necromancy fueling the future, and accordingly, it’s implied she has no problem with kidnapping and murder to get whatever she wants–END SPOILER.
- Percy Allread: With Rose comes her bookkeeper, who I honestly liked just because he wasn’t having any of the nonsense the other characters were actively creating. But weirdly, the interesting backstory about him comes at the very end. I was rooting for him to be the cool character, so stiff and wooden through the first half, staying out of the overblown drama, refusing to talk about himself, minding his own business (and Rose’s!) and clearly keeping so many secrets. Well, I still think he’d be an interesting character. Watching him bloom with life when he gets agitated is really a great moment in the book–but I guess I’ll have to wait for Percy to be the hero or villain I know he could be in another book. It didn’t happen in this one.
- Abigail: lady fencing instructor/gambling house owner remarkably similar to that cool lady from Enola Holmes who ran the tea shop/ladies’ martial arts parlor. I am one hundred percent okay with this being the next latest and greatest fiction trope.
- Justice: literally the ideal of justice, if you ask her. If you ask me, she’s a sulky militant who doesn’t know the first thing about what’s just and is abusing everyone and everything because she can. Ultimate power leads to ultimate corruption, as they say.
- Levi Perri: Drumroll please! Introducing our incredibly problematic alchemist who is willing to lie, kidnap, murder, soul extract, hire demons, and enslave others indefinitely to get what he wants, which is to make little gold coins and seeds out of nothing. Problematic actions include but are not limited to flashing the neighbors, being a jerk to the maid who cooks and cleans and puts up with all his nonsense, using necromancy, and contemplating the murder of his own sister. I hate Levi. I know he’s supposed to have a redemption arc, but I still think he’s a pathetic jerk of a human being. I have patience for slow books. I’m good with characters who know what they’re doing is wrong and don’t care in the least. I do not have patience for undisciplined selfish jerks who know they’re doing something wrong and just go “Ehhh. I’ll have that moral argument with myself…later.” These are fictional cowards.
- Otis: Necromancer extraordinaire who cares about himself, also himself, and only himself. Also known to be extremely sulky and a total womanizer. But he can shape shift into an otter and he’s on the run for his life, so…yeah, it’s actually hard to say if I dislike him more than Levi. I think Levi still wins worst character, which is saying a lot.
- The Random Deaf Mechanic (or he who crafts pomander goldfish): also a focalized character for one chapter. His scene is so brief I honestly forgot about him, but he seemed nice. Less problematic than the gang we spend the most time with, actually.
Next up is the plot. I’ve already hinted this is about Levi’s alchemical machine going one step further than “lead into gold” by challenging “nothing (except necromancy) into gold.” But it’s also about family–Levi and Sigourney are estranged siblings finding their way together again.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, a resolution between siblings. But turning something to gold? We’ve seen that before, dozens of times, in different trappings. It’s a familiar refrain.
But a giant rabbit who can control probability and is called the “god of luck?” Now that’s something you don’t see every day!
Honestly, I wish Ashcomb had explored this more. Of course, being that I’ve stumbled into this series only in book three, it could be my wish has already been granted. But in this book, it stays in the background. Ashcomb comments that there’s a chaotic rabbit casually causing havoc as people crash into each other and the fabric of reality wears thin because he’s bored today as if she were saying “It was foggy in Threebeanvalley today.”
So much unexpected possibility.
There’s also the fact that Siarl and Sigourney are in the middle of the “third act breakup” for the entirety of the book.
Awkward. Very awkward.
I wanted to like them together. I like a light, sweet romance where it’s all in a glance, surreptitious hand-holding and occasionally setting the world on fire and bleeding out villains for each other. When it’s up to you the reader to realize how much emotion is hidden in every shy, tender gesture. I wanted to think Sigourney had found a protector against the noisy, chaotic, social world, a friend, someone who saw the beauty and goodness in her even when she was invisible, when she was at her worst–and I couldn’t do it.
So much of the book, Sigourney is thinking “This isn’t going to work,” and trying to push him away. Even when they say “I love you,” it sounds wooden, like “How are you?/I’m fine.” Reflexive and empty. There isn’t even the tension, the slipping feeling of knowing their relationship isn’t working. It just feels dead.
…And since Ashcomb’s book at heart is about how messy, complicated, and vital family dynamics and relationships are…this didn’t work well for me. I really wish it had. It’s such a complex, beautiful, important subject! But somehow it all just felt hopeless and dark.
And while we’re on the subject of relationships, let’s go back to Sigourney and Levi. Early on, it’s pretty clear Sigourney was abused as a kid. Alcoholic dad, neglectful mom. And where does Levi fit into this picture?
Not that Sigourney’s mother and father had been horrible people. They’d been just indifferent towards her. It was her brother, Levi, who’d had a twisted mind. He’d tormented Sigourney her whole childhood, being violent towards her in the name of curiosity. He had never been reprimanded by their parents, who saw their firstborn son as perfect and a miracle, unlike Sigourney. She was a burden. One extra mouth to feed, and the most despicable sort: a female.K.A. Ashcomb. Mechanics of the Past (Kindle Locations 379-382), emphasis mine.
In context, that sounds like Levi was physically abusive to his sister. And considering what he’s willing to do later in the book, even considering Sigourney a means to an end, I don’t think that conclusion is a big leap of logic.
Yeah. That’s not okay.
And this is the brother who gets off scot-free at the end of the novel. Other characters lose friends, health, freedom, but he gets a second chance at messing everything up all over again. No lasting repercussions.
He doesn’t deserve to blame Sigourney for escaping an abusive relationship. He doesn’t deserve her apology. She has nothing to apologize for. And yet at the end of the novel, it’s as if they pretend that line about him being violent “in the name of curiosity” never happened and they can just blame their parents and move forward together. Either it’s a continuity error or it’s a relationship that’s really, really messed up.
If it were up to me, I’d tell Sigourney to get as far away from him as possible. You don’t trust people like that. Not until they’re ready to prove to you they’ve changed. And locking you in a closet with the intention to use you for alchemical purposes is not a sign of familial feeling.
Levi’s an abusive jerk who deserves everything he got and then some.
Look, I could probably keep ranting about this book for days, but this post is already so long I’m going to bet only three people will make it all the way to the end. I’ll skip to my last point.
I could argue that there’s too much chit-chat, that the action scenes are often a little slow, but what I’d really be getting at is the moralizing.
Every time one of the characters has to do anything, they think.
I don’t mean you’re getting to see their process and see the change in character towards redemption or corruption. That would be something. This is more of a daydream on a particular topic, the author’s warm-ups, if you will. It’s philosophizing, moralizing on a topic, and to prevent it sounding too preachy, Ashcomb never gives a definitive conclusion “This is right and good” or “This is wrong.”
Personally, I don’t think it works. A little subtlety would go a long way. This much time, with no conclusion to the moral argument just feels like the characters can’t make up their minds, just poorly justifying their actions when they’ve never known anything about logic in their entire lives.
It would be one thing if it happened a handful of times. But we’re talking about the beginning of almost every chapter. And the result of that many long moral arguments with literally no moral is that the reader is annoyed. You zone out and start to wonder about the characters–do you believe in anything? Do you care about anything? If you don’t believe something is right–how do you even do anything? How do you make decisions? How do you get out of bed in the morning? How do you know you aren’t just making the world worse and worse for everyone? Does that even matter to you? I mean, these are the characters who have been through a lot. You’d think they’d learn some core principles eventually, even if it’s as something as simple as Sigourney hating violence or alcohol because of her upbringing. Tell me they feel something, believe something, right?
But no. There are motivations, like Levi’s desire for the alchemical machines to work, Rose’s desire for money, Justice’s for power. But as far as believing in anything? Their logic is flawed. Stupid, even. Lazy. They don’t follow the thread of moral reasoning to its heart because they don’t want to. They’re weak cowards. They already know that the only reason you shouldn’t think is because you already know you’re wrong.
I don’t have patience for those kind of people, characters or otherwise. I don’t care if it feels right in the moment. I’m not going to wait around while your decisions lead to someone else bleeding out in the ditch.
Know who you are. Know what you do. You can’t run from the consequences. The very fabric of the world won’t allow it. And that’s true no matter what universe you’re in.
So…yeah. That’s Mechanics of the Past. Like a lot of independent or small press books I run into, I feel like with a little more press and a lot more editing, the raw potential could have been shaped into something really great.
As it is…K. A. Ashcomb, if you’re reading, I hope I didn’t crush your dreams too badly. You wrote three books, and more than once in those first few pages I caught myself smiling at your humor. So congratulate yourself on your accomplishments, join the growing club of people who hate my little blog (because I promise I can take it)–and go write another book.
I believe in you.