Though war rages around him, Konstantin Falkenrath has a single-minded focus for the captured enemy clockwork dragon brought to his lab. As an archmage, he must puzzle out the fantastical design if he hopes to help save those under siege from the complex war machines. Konstantin finds himself incessantly distracted by the handsome airship captain, Theodore Himmel. Konstantin tries to push the man away, but the men find themselves on a diplomatic mission into the heart of enemy territory.
When Konstantin is given the opportunity to meet the architect of the clockwork dragon, he is first amazed and then horrified. He realizes that human souls are powering some of the machines, despite the fact doing so is illegal. With Himmel’s help, Konstantin must stop the rogue mage before more souls are imprisoned and the war is lost. But doing so may cost Konstantin everything he cares about.
Clockwork Menagerie is steampunk novella with an interesting hook, but ultimately it is crippled by its shortened length and chaotic plot. I will say that I discovered this book was a part of a wider series only after I had read it. So I’m giving some of the issues I had regarding a few plot holes a pass because I suspect the rest of the series fills in these gaps. Ultimately, the idea of a clockwork device confining a soul in a bizarre form of technological slavery was captivating and terrible all at the same time. The author does a great job of revealing this particular horror and doing so inch by inch, drawing out the suspense. The plot is decent, but too quickly it becomes overwhelmed by pacing issues, which rush readers through one event after the other and leave no time to process information. The end result is a jumbled narrative rather than an evenly paced, cohesive story. I felt that things were so rushed that that there was no chance to enjoy much of the action on page. In many ways I think Clockwork Menagerie fell prey to its status as a novella. Had it been longer and the action been allowed to breathe, a more natural pacing would have likely developed.
Konstantin and Himmel both had potential, but ultimately they lacked much definition. They felt flat and rather one-dimensional. We are given a little information about their history, but not enough to fully explain their actions and feelings for one another. They seemed to be going through the motions, driven by action but without specific purpose. As a result, I never connected with either of them and it was hard to become invested in their journey. I know the Konstantin is a strong presence in the other books of the Shadows of Asphodel series and perhaps his characters is seen more completely in those works, but he failed to shine in his own novella.
Steampunk can be unforgiving genre and I heartily applaud any author who tackles this particular realm of fiction. Clockwork Menagerie had an intriguing premise, but foundered under a rushed plot, rather limp characters and overall pacing issues. On the whole unless you just love steampunk or happen to be a fan of the rest of the series, I’d recommend giving this one a pass.