The Wonder Engine (2018) is the second half of a fantasy duology by T. Kingfisher that began with Clockwork Boys, and it’s absolutely necessary to read that book first (a few minor spoilers for that book are in this review). Clockwork Boys relates how a company of condemned criminals ― Slate the forger, Brenner the assassin, and Caliban the paladin ― plus one straitlaced, misogynistic scholar named Learned Edmund, are assembled and sent on a mission to the distant Anuket City. This is the place where the so-called Clockwork Boys or, more properly, clocktaurs, originate: immense magical mechanical creatures that smash everything and kill everyone in their paths, and are nearly unstoppable. The group’s mission: stop the unstoppable, or die trying.
The group has just arrived in Anuket City as this story begins, having been joined by Grimehug the gnole, an intelligent creature resembling a badger, whose people form a servant class used by the humans in Anuket City. To make sure none of the team abandons the mission, their government had them inked with carnivorous tattoos that literally will chew them to pieces if they try to desert. But there are a lot of hurdles to overcome: they have to figure out where in the city the clocktaurs are being created, who is responsible, how they are made, and how to stop that process.
Another unexpected difficulty is the secrets that some of the members of the group are keeping. Slate spent several years living in Anuket City and is in grave danger if her return is discovered, but she refuses to share the reason why. The dead-ish demon inside of Caliban has gone ominously silent since the group’s escape from the runes, murderous deer-like people led by a demon-possessed shaman, during their journey to Anuket City. The group is also relying on the help of Grimehug, but no one is certain whether the gnole is trustworthy.
Kingfisher tells an exciting story with imaginative details, focusing the story on the personalities in this group and how they change as they interact with each other. Slate and Caliban are gradually becoming attracted to each other, despite their differences, and the dark-hearted Brenner ― Slate’s former lover ― is not at all okay with that. Learned Edmund, who is gradually overcoming his deeply-ingrained prejudices against women after seeing Slate’s heroic actions during the journey, is searching for a brilliant artificer, Ashes Magnus, who may be able to help him find a missing scholar from his brotherhood in the city, and gets a shock when he finds Ashes.
The Wonder Engine ramps up the tension and excitement level from the first book. That, plus a particular twist in the plot that was truly startling despite being reasonably foreshadowed, make this volume an improvement over Clockwork Boys, which focused on the group’s journey to Anuket City, developing the characters, and building this world. In most ways it’s a medieval European type of fantasy world, but the addition of wonder-engines (huge, ancient artifacts that produce varying magical products) and the clocktaurs themselves are an unusual, steampunkish addition to this fantasy world.
The Wonder Engine does spend a fair amount of time developing the romantic relationship between Slate and Caliban. After an exciting and horrific climax to the main plot, the rest of the book drags a little as it deals with the fallout from the results of the mission, especially its effect on a romantic relationship. Some readers may enjoy this part, but personally I wanted to slap certain people upside the head. In any case, because of this I’d recommend this CLOCKTAUR WAR duology to readers who appreciate strong romantic subplots in their fantasy reading.
The Wonder Engine didn’t really change my initial assessment, after reading Clockwork Boys, that this duology is a fairly typical fantasy heist by a company of strangers who are gradually coalescing into a team, but Kingfisher is a talented storyteller who makes this journey worthwhile.