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REVIEW: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson (based on a story and lyrics by Neil Peart)

REVIEW SUMMARY: A fable of Order vs. Chaos fighting for a young man’s soul set in a world of alchemy and alternate universes. And steamships! KJA’s world building plus Easter eggs for Rush fans, and a struggle that starts out simple but is complex.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Owen Hardy grows up in a world controlled by the Watchmaker, where “the Universe has a plan, All is for the best.” His yearning for something more takes him out of the order of his small town, and thrusts him into the battle between order (the Watchmaker) and chaos (the Anarchist) leading him to explore places and worlds he did not realize existed.

PROS: Hugh Syme’s graphics (wish there were more in the ARC!); Rush easter eggs; combination of alchemy and steampunk world
CONS: Starts slow; more backstory (i.e, a longer novel) on the world’s history and characters;
BOTTOM LINE: After a slow start, Clockwork Angels barrels through a world of alchemy, multiple universes and steamships, using a manipulative war between chaos and order as the canvas for a philosophical discourse based on lyrics by Neil Peart. Not just for Rush and KJA fans, but enjoyable for those who like different worlds and allegorical fables.

[For additional background, see the review of the Clockwork Angels album by Rush]

Neal Peart, lyricist and drummer of Rush, has, ably assisted by Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of the band, written lyrics for hundreds of songs for the band’s 19 studio albums (the other (20th) was a cover of rock standards). Several of these songs formed “concept albums” where all of the lyrics (or maybe just a side of the LP, for those of us who remember and still have those wonderful discs) put together told a tale: a revolt against the controlling priests of Syrinx (2112), the battle of emotion vs. logic fought by old gods (Hemispheres), and many others. The band has been listed on several of “those lists” of “Bands influential in the worlds of SciFi and fantasy” (and I will confess, I penned a completely awful short story based on the lyrics of “A Farewell to Kings” in college).

In spite of his place in life as a drummer ranked repeatedly among the world’s best, in his motorcycle tour/philosophical/observation books such as Ghost Rider and Roadshow, Neal Peart comes across as a normal guy (or as normal as a Canadian can be 🙂 ) who has tried to follow his own path and is often in awe and even doubtful that people see him as something special.

Take away the drums and motorcycles and replace them with juggling and steamships, and you get to the everyman that is Owen Hardy, the “hero” of the novel Clockwork Angels. Not that this tale is autobiographical, but it is certainly a fable of an everyman, confronted and pulled by the tides of order and chaos, asking him to chose one or the other. That everyman concept, and the choices they make are the topic of several Rush songs (“I will choose the path that’s clear, I will choose free will”).

Writing lyrics and writing a book are, of course, different animals. It is good to be friends with an experienced author like Kevin J. Anderson (mentioned in Roadshow). KJA takes the lyrics of the album Clockwork Angels and builds a world around them. It is hard not to read this book with the album playing in your head, and KJA interweaves the lyrics into the story to keep the voices in your head singing along.

At first it seems like a simple world, with Owen Hardy in an orderly life in a small town, everything neatly planned. But Owen is subvertly and overtly manipulated by the champions of order and chaos. He dreams of something larger than being an assistant manager of the apple orchard, and when his girlfriend fails to meet him at a daring romantic liaison, he takes a stranger’s hand and is hoisted aboard a steam train headed for Crown City, the central city of Albion, home of the Watchmaker and the Clockwork Angels. The Watchmaker rules Albion through alchemical creations of gold and manipulations of time, weather and all events needing order. The Clockwork Angels are his creation: human-machine hybrids that represent the beauty of an orderly world.

Owen, not planning for this trip, has no money except for that which the stranger on the steam train lent him, and he soon finds himself homeless, then thrown out of the city. He discovers a roving band of carnival workers (carnies and gypies, good characters to carry the history and secrets of worlds), falls in love and believes he has found a different kind of order.

But then the Anarchist, a somewhat mad alchemical expert with a vendetta, implicates Owen in a bombing, and he is on the run, descending into poverty and homelessness again, questioning whether the Universe has a plan, or which plan is the “right” one.

The pace picks up once the Anarchist gets involved, and from there Owen bounces from adventure to adventure, traveling to places across sea and sky, until he takes control of his life and chooses to do what he wants.

The alchemical world is slowly but surely explored throughout the book:

“The big ship pulled up to a special doc, large enough to accommodate three normal barges. Creates marked with alchemical symbols were stacked high on the deck, some covered with tarpaulins to protect against the rain and sea spray; other boxes were open to the elements. One of the dockworkers told him that the more valuable substances were locked in the hold behind steel bulkheads, where they were prevented from engaging in unauthorized chemical reactions, which were the sole province of the alchemical-priests. Nature could not be allowed to take an accidental course.”

There are interesting alchemical inventions mentioned and used, as Owen explores the world, interwoven into his thoughts as his opinions of his universe morph:

“Eventually, he would be able to view his memories of her from a new perspective, as if they were pristine chronotypes, and he would remember the fond parts more easily than his disappointments. He imagined what he might have said differently, alternate choices he could have made, and how Francesca might have responded. If there were many other possible worlds, much like this one but different, perhaps in one of them he had done everything right.”

The novel is short, certainly leaving open a future return to the world. But more depth resulting in a lengthening of the book would have been appreciated: background on the Watchmaker, where he came from, what really happened “before the Stability” and an exploration of the many parallel worlds that are referred to.

I would also have enjoyed as many Hugh Syme graphics as possible. There were only a few in the Advanced Reader Copy that I was fortunate to receive. But there are extensive ones in the Digital Booklet that comes with the album and supposedly with the hardback of the novel. Syme’s steampunk world is colorful and abstract, depicting the steamships and airships as well as the characters and places. Syme has worked on previous Rush album artwork, and I hope he gets some recognition for his work in this novel.

If this is a fable, then what is the moral? It would be an easy answer to fall back on Peart’s lyrics and use the “I will choose Free Will” line, and be done with it. And that may in fact be the intended moral to the fable. But many of Peart’s lyrical worlds involve extremes: logic vs. emotion, chaos vs. order, and propaganda/manipulation to pull a person one direction or the other.  Sounds eerily like a US Presidential election, where extremes are blaring from TVs and social media with limited actual content or depth. Like Owen Hardy we can choose to get caught up in the conflict or we can find our own purpose, our own motivation, our own place of Zen. “A measure of a life is a measure of love and respect.”

For those fellow Rush fans, the gauntlet is thrown down to play “find the Rush lyric or album title”. KJA has used several in this tome, and it is of course hard to read the book without hearing the music playing in your head (or is that those pesky voices again?) I suggest playing the game without finding lyrics from the Clockwork Angels album, which are obviously splattered everywhere. I’ve personally dog eared pages with “Time Stand Still”, “Roll the Bones”, “Mystic Rhythms,” “Presto,” “Natural Science” (“all the busy little creatures chasing out their destinies”), and “Limelight”.

About Larry Ketchersid (55 Articles)
Author of two novels (Dusk Before the Dawn, Software by the Kilo) and one volume of non-fiction stories. CEO of a security software and services company; co-owner of JoSara MeDia, publisher of iPad apps, print and eBooks. Runner, traveler, Sharks fan, Rockets fan, Packers shareholder.

5 Comments on REVIEW: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson (based on a story and lyrics by Neil Peart)

  1. With all the glowing reviews most books get on here(John seems to be about the only true cynic) I will have to say that this book being good probably flies in the face of Sturgeon’s Law.

    Or a Alternative Universe.

    Maybe stranger things have happened, but this does seem like a grown up stoner’s adolescent fantasy come to life.

    What was that line Cobain kept singing about being easily amused before he blew the top of his head off?.?..

    • Thanks for your comment.
      When I think of “a grown up stoner’s adolescent fantasy come to life”, I think of my wife, not a book.

      I enjoyed the book, what can I say? I gave it four stars. When I read a KJA and don’t feel like giving it stars, it looks like this.

  2. I read the 3 chapter preview and thought that it felt very forced, amateurish, and for lack of a better descriptor- overt. I’ve read a few positive reviews and can only ask if felt the same early on to you, only to have things improve substantially? If the rest is like the first 3 chapters, count me out. Great CD, however…


    • MB, thanks for the comment. As I mentioned in the review, it does indeed move very slowly in the beginning, and the boring life of Owen Hardy is described…very boringly. Once his life turns into a struggle, it picks up quite a bit with some interesting ideas interwoven.

      And, yeah, the CD is most excellent.

  3. I have to agree that the book started slowly at first, but once I got past the first few chapters it was like hitting the afterburners. I’ve had this book on my Nook Tablet for months, bought it when it first came out. But every time I started reading it there was just nothing compelling about it. But power past the dull opening (maybe that was intentional, to illustrate just how drab and awful Owen’s life was at the first?), and suddenly I literally could not put the book down. I was carrying it from room to room running into things as I read it. It’s embarrassing, but that’s just how compelling the rest of the story is. Like any protagonist worth his salt, I found myself identifying with Owen Hardy and experiencing his pain and his joys, rooting for him in adversity and cheering for him in victory. All around it’s a wonderful read, and this from a guy who doesn’t typically read KJA or anything of the Steampunk ilk. By the way, has anyone reviewed this book who is not a Rush fan?

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