It is 1910 and the French Empire has taken over most of the continent. Austria is one of the few countries holding their own, mostly due to their large deposits of aether, an element that helps to power the airships and other technology. But the Austrians are far behind the impressive clockwork technology of the French and the French are continuing their plans to extend their power even further.
Cornelius Stevens is the bastard son of the Archduke of France, the real power in the government and the military leader. Cornelius is a tinker, apprentice to the greatest clockwork tinker in France. When he discovers an Austrian soldier left for dead, Cornelius can’t help but try to save the man. He hates the war and can’t stand to see so many die in his father’s quest for power. So he takes the man back to his lab and repairs his damaged body with the help of clockwork parts. But Cornelius discovers that despite the new limbs and other repairs, the man is still dying due to his damaged heart. So Cornelius takes an even bigger risk: he implants the man with a clockwork heart, a device his mentor developed in secret and has kept hidden away to keep it out of the wrong hands.
When Austrian soldier Johann Berger wakes up, he can’t even begin to imagine what happened to him. The last thing he remembers was being thrown onto a barge with dead bodies and suddenly he is awake in Calais with clockwork parts. Johann can’t speak much French, nor does Cornelius speak German, but the two manage to communicate enough for Johann to understand that who he is must be kept a secret. In fact, Cornelius tells him he must pretend they are lovers to help hide the fact that Johann is an enemy soldier.
As Johann recovers and Cornelius tries to keep him safe, the men begin to grow closer. In Austria men can not be open about their attraction to other men, but here in France it seems that things are much more free and Johann begins to realize his attraction for Cornelius and feelings grow between them. But the situation is incredibly dangerous. If anyone knew that Johann had the clockwork heart, they would easily kill him for the powerful technology. And when Cornelius’ life is threatened and soldiers come looking for the heart, the men know they must make an escape.
Soon the men are the on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling with pirates, working with spies, and caught up in the heart of the war between the French Empire and those who want to see them stopped. It is hard to know exactly who to trust, especially when Cornelius’ father is one of the most evil among them and wants Johann’s heart most of all. Now the two men must fight for their lives, as well as for the future of France, and hopefully they can find a way to make it together in the end.
Oh, this book was so much fun, I just adored it. Cullinan has created such a fascinating world here, a revision of history that sees France as a superpower and the rest of Europe struggling under its control. The book starts with an Author’s Note that sets the scene for this alternate world, and it is incredibly helpful to read. Without it I think I would have been pretty lost, but after reading the set up I had no trouble following along and I found it all wonderfully creative. This is a world of airships and clockwork techonology and a continent with completely different politics than our reality. It is a take on steampunk/clockwork that I have never seen before and I found it fascinating and so cleverly done.
The clockwork technology here is really fun. We get nice detail on Cornelius’ inventions. He is brilliant and can build complex machines easily. Cullinan manages to give us a fascinating look into the clockwork world without overwhelming us with technical details. The center of it all is the clockwork heart. Cornelius steals it to save Johann’s life and it is only thing keeping him alive. On one hand it is just a machine, but it is also the tool that is giving him life. And everyone wants it, in particular Cornelius’ father who wants to replicate the hearts and implant them in soldiers, creating a nearly indestructible army. Cornelius just wants to protect his lover, but if anyone finds out Johann has the heart, his life will be in even more danger.
Along with the fabulous world building and creative clockwork elements, this story is filled with wonderful characters. Johann and Cornelius are a fabulous couple. Cornelius is wealthy and lives a mostly privileged life. He is open about his sexuality and a bit decadent in his pursuits. But he is also so good, so caring, and the total opposite of his father. When Cornelius sees Johann at near death, he doesn’t even think before he rushes to save the man, despite the fact that he is the enemy. Johann is from a small town and has led a more sheltered life. He can’t even conceive of men being open about their sexuality and being with Cornelius opens his eyes to his real feelings. Johann is such solid strength. At first he is frail and so out of his element, but as he heals and gets acclimated, he is strong and powerful and would do anything for Cornelius. They are such a wonderful, strong couple. We can feel how much they love one another, how either man would do anything to protect his partner. They are loving and warm and incredibly sexy together. I just adored them.
The story is filled with some other great characters, including Cornelius’ best friend Valentin, his mentor Felix, and a host of pirates, spies, and other friends who help them along in their journey. The story manages to balance a variety of characters, immersing us in the world, but still keeping focus on our heroes, something that isn’t always easy to manage. This book is the first of a series and I can see so many exciting possibilities for where things could go from here. Between the characters, the world building, the politics, and the relationships, there is so much potential here and I can’t wait. Clockwork Heart is filled with romance, intrigue, sexiness, and wonderful characters. It was just fabulous and I would highly recommend it.