Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher
The plot of T. Kingfisher’s Clockwork Boys (2017) is of the “misfit company of strangers on a dangerous mission” type. Their country has been invaded by the so-called Clockwork Boys, nearly unstoppable, 10-foot-tall centaur-like creatures who are laying waste to the countryside. (I like the allusion to the out-of-control gang of boys in A Clockwork Orange.) The Dowager Queen has previously sent soldiers and spies to distant Anuket City, from which the Clockwork Boys regularly emerge, to investigate and try to stop these artificially created creatures, but these prior groups have all disappeared without a trace. So the Dowager has now landed on the idea of sending a group of criminals, perhaps with the thought that it’s no great loss if they don’t return.
The group is led by Slate, a 30-year-old brown-skinned woman with serious forgery and lock-picking skills and a small amount of magic: the smell of rosemary magically guides or warns her at key moments. The rosemary scent leads Slate to Sir Caliban, a handsome paladin (knight) who specializes in killing demons that have possessed people or animals, but who is in prison after he himself was possessed and committed mass murder. The demon’s spirit is now dead, at least mostly, but is still lurking within Caliban. Slate and Caliban are joined by Brenner, a skilled and rather heartless assassin and Slate’s former lover, and Learned Edmund, a scholar whose religion teaches that women are poisonous to men’s souls.
Unfortunately for the group, this is almost certainly a suicide mission. No one ― neither the Dowager who sends them on their mission, the soldiers they meet along the way, or the four team members themselves ― expects them to survive. But if they beat the long odds, full pardons await. So they begin the long, dangerous journey to Anuket City.
A group of recently-met companions going on a hazardous mission is a familiar fantasy plot, but Kingfisher excels at drawing flawed but appealing characters. Much of the focus of the story is on their interpersonal relationships, and each member of the group is a unique and memorable character. Kingfisher also fills the pages of this novel with wry humor, witty observations and fascinating details. To prevent the group members from abandoning their assignment, the criminals (Slate, Caliban and Brenner) are given tattoos of a small toothy creature biting into their arms. If they start to go off-mission, the tattoo gives them a painful bite. Fail to return to the mission, and the tattoo will entirely devour you.
Slate wondered vaguely where they’d found [the tattoo artist]. Minor wonderworkers were common enough, often possessing very specific talents. Still, what kind of turns did a life have to take before you discovered that your personal gift from the universe was making carnivorous tattoos?
Clockwork Boys is a solid, enjoyable fantasy adventure, with a slight whiff of steampunk to it, but it’s only the first half of the overall story. The conclusion of this tale is in The Wonder Engine, published in 2018 and a Locus Award nominee. There are some surprising twists in the second half of this adventure; it’s well worth reading.
Yes, a time-honored plot structure also favored by war movies like THE DIRTY DOZEN, but it’s popular because it’s so useful! And in the hands of a good writer, it’s great.