Cogheart

cogheart

Cogheart was written by Peter Bunzl and first published in 2016. It is a steampunk novel aimed at middle grade readers which focuses on a young girl as she searches for her missing father. The novel forms the first part of a series and its sequel – provisionally titled Moonlocket – is expected to be released next year.

Lily Hartman does not want to be a proper lady. While the tutors at Miss Scrimshaw’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies are intent on teaching her good manners and poise, she would much rather be reading penny dreadfuls and practicing her lock picking skills. Yet her life becomes even worse when her father – esteemed inventor of mechanicals and mechanimals, John Hartman – is killed in an airship accident, leaving her entrusted to the care of her cold-hearted housekeeper, Madame Verdigris.

Yet Lily struggles to believe that her father is dead. After all, nobody ever found the body. Further suspicions arise when her father’s pet mechanimal fox, Malkin, is discovered by the local clockmaker’s apprentice, a clumsy boy by the name of Robert. Malkin escaped the airship crash, carrying a note which reveals the truth about John’s shady past. He may very well have invented the first perpetual motion machine and there may be others who are also aware of this fact.

As Robert and Malkin try to deliver the letter to Lily, the young girl finds herself in grave danger. Two sinister men with mirrors for eyes are hunting for her and she’s pretty sure that Madame Verdigris is also in on the conspiracy. She knows that her only chance of staying safe and finding her father is to get to her Godfather, but he lives many miles away in London. Soon, Lily’s life starts to feel like one of her penny dreadfuls and she realises that even her closest friends may not be all that trustworthy…

As I have said many times before, I really do like steampunk. There’s something about its intricacies that just fascinates me. The elegant aesthetic of the Victorian era twinned with the delicate complexities of clockwork. I just think that it’s a brilliant vessel for wildly imaginative world building. Naturally, when I heard about this new steampunk novel for middle grade readers, I just had to get my mitts on a copy.

The setting of Cogheart is everything that I hoped it would be. It paints a vivid picture of an alternate London; a place where Kings Cross station has its own air dock and air pirates battle in the fog that hangs over the city. It’s a world where humans live alongside mechanicals and mechanimals, both of which run on clockwork and have varying degrees of sentience. The world building is strong and imaginative, yet never feels too heavy to deter a pre-teen reader. The novel even includes a two-page glossary to explain some of the more unusual terms such as chronometer, penny dreadful and perpetual motion machine, to ensure that the reader fully understands what’s going on.

The story is very quick to find its feet and is filled with exciting chases and air piracy. While I did feel as though it slowed down a little towards the middle, the climatic fight on top of Big Ben was truly thrilling and gave the novel a real cinematic feel. Yet the story’s strongest aspect was its mystery. While I won’t reveal too much here for fear of spoiling it, I will say that the true motivation of the villain gradually becomes clear over the course of the story. There are plenty of clues to allow the reader to guess the big bad guy’s identity, but the novel still takes its audience’s intelligence very seriously. Despite the fact that this story is the first part of the series, it also stands alone very well, with the only noticeable loose end being the whereabouts of Robert’s missing mother, leaving off the novel with a good strong ending.

Cogheart is entirely written in third person, alternating in perspective between Lily, Robert and occasionally Malkin. While the narrative voice is very strong and often rather witty, unfortunately this natural flow didn’t carry into the dialogue between characters. Conversations in the novel often felt very forced and melodramatic. For example, early in the novel Robert asks his father to fix Malkin (something that his father is reluctant to do in case it drags them into danger). His father then breaks off into a length speech about bravery:

“Such terrible things happen in the world, don’t they? Violence against mechs and humans. And sometimes it feels easier to give in, or not to get involved. But, I suppose without these evils there’d be no chance for us to do good, and doing good is what matters. Though it can sometimes be very frightening…” Thaddeus paused and tapped the workbench thoughtfully with his screwdriver. “No one conquers fear easily, Robert. It takes a brave heart to win great battles.”

This speech does have its significance, especially the final sentence which Robert repeats like a mantra throughout the story but it just feels entirely out of place. Not only does it not really fit the scene, it also doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that a clockmaker would just come out and say.

In terms of characterisation, the thing I enjoyed most about the story was the villain. Again, I’m not going to spoil their identity or motivation here but I did feel it was very strong. The person was legitimately wronged by John and had a very strong reason to want revenge. While the villain’s actions in the story do become increasingly monstrous, John essentially did break a promise he made to them and so everything could have been avoided if he had remained true to his word.

Yet, beyond this, some of the other characters felt a bit lacking. It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly but there was just something flat about the protagonists, as though they had not been fully fleshed out. For example, Robert’s crippling fear of heights never plays into the story. As someone who actually is afraid of heights, I know how utterly paralysing this phobia can be, yet Robert barely hesitates before scaling ladders and swinging between airships. Similarly, Anna is surprisingly passive given her incredible profession. She’s a female reporter, aviator and writer of penny dreadfuls in 19th Century London. Why does she not get more invested when she finally gets the chance to life out her sky pirate fantasies?

Perhaps the problems lie in the writing of the female characters in general. Ultimately, I was left feeling a little disappointed by Lily. While she started out the novel as an incredibly strong tomboy character, eager to both dress and behave like a boy rather than be proper as was expected of her, she seemed to lose this quality towards the end of the novel. In the climax, Lily contributes very little other than to slip her bindings. In the end, it’s really Robert that saves the day.

Anyhow, I think I’ve wittered on for long enough. All in all, I did enjoy Cogheart and would certainly recommend it. The novel was really only let down by some clumsy dialogue and flat characterisation. It was still an exciting read with some great world building and I’m sure that young science fiction fans will adore it.

Cogheart can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book from Amazon.co.uk

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The Sobeks 2016 – Part 4 | Arkham Reviews
  2. Trackback: Moonlocket | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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