Clockwork is no longer as fashionable as it used to be. Today people want something more; they want magic animals, metal dogs that can bark, wind-up monkeys that can climb, and gilded birds that can fly as well as, if not better than, the real thing, made of silver and gold and bright, colorful gems. In order to protect his family from their slow, downward spiral of poverty, Leander decides it’s time to put aside his prejudices and hire a mage. Enter Jak, with his foreign manners, strange powers, and a bright, charming smile that makes Leander’s heart run like a rabbit.
Leander doesn’t trust the strange mage, but he also doesn’t really have a choice. His grandmother can’t work in the shop anymore, his father is slaving away in a factory for the pittance of coin it brings them (since the shop brings in almost nothing, these days), and Leander has two siblings who need clothes, food, and schooling. He’ll do his duty and work with Jak, even while the mage manages to push every one of his buttons as if it were a game. Jak has no sense of decorum or restraint, and yet Leander can’t quite bring himself to say no to anything Jak asks of him, especially when Jak’s magic gets them a commission from the Baroness Norrington herself!
Jak is on the run from his past, and hiding in a dinky little shop that makes surprisingly beautiful creations seems as good a plan as any. Make some money, have some fun, and be gone before the end of the month. It would be the perfect plan if it weren’t for two things: He likes Leander and he likes Leander’s family. He also likes the way Leander blushes and gets flustered when Jak crowds against him, or the way he looks when he’s frowning over some complex clockwork conundrum. That, and the Baroness knows his secret. Having heard of the marvelous wonders of their shop, she comes to them to see for herself what the pair is capable of… and ends up being quite pleased.
The Baroness has a new pet in mind, something more than the mindless monkey on her shoulder. She wants a dragon, a life-sized dragon, and will do anything to get it. Money is no object; in fact, nothing is. They want a tutor for the children? Done. They need more workers? Done. They need more gold, more diamonds, more, more and more? Done. Anything and everything so long as she gets her dragon. But if she doesn’t, if they fail her… well, that’s just not an option, now, is it? Which means Jak and Leander will do have to everything they can to make her dreams come true. And when she expresses an interest in Jak, even as he’s just started this something new with Leander? When she reveals to Jak she knows his secret? What price is Jak willing to put on love?
Leander is quiet, prim, and proper. Like his clockwork creations, he works best when everything is in its right place, all polished and wound just tightly enough. Ever since his mother died, the responsibility for the shop has been on his shoulders and he’s done his best, doing what he had to do and what was expected of him. Unfortunately, his best wasn’t quite good enough. With resignation and resolve Leander sets about to hire himself a mage, no mater his personal opinion of them. For Leander, family is everything, with clockwork a close second. Leander isn’t the typical frigid, tightly-wound figure who just needs to relax; he’s not shy or ashamed of himself. He’s just busy, or worried, or so caught by an idea he loses track of time. When he has a moment to relax, when he knows that those he loves will be taken care of, Leander’s more than willing and able to take a moment for himself.
Jak is flighty, careless, and barely plans five minutes ahead (if that). He spends money — when he has it — like water, with no thought of consequences or what might happen next. When he was a child and his magic showed itself, he was whisked off to a magic school that was part prison and part training camp. He hated it, and when he was conscripted into the war, he hated that even more. Using his magic, something that brought him joy and pride, to kill people… it wasn’t right. It couldn’t be right. So, he did what came naturally to him and just left. When he comes to Leander’s shop, he’s there mostly for the money, but later, as Jak gets to know not only Leander, but his grandmother and Susanna and Percy, his perspective begins to change.
Having had to leave his family at a young age, Jak can’t help but miss what he didn’t have a chance to enjoy: siblings climbing over him, yelling at him, and smarting off at him, or a grandmother to pat his cheek, or even a father figure to glare at him. Jak has brothers and sisters he’s never met, will most likely never meet. With Leander’s family he gets a taste of that, and it keeps him there longer than he might otherwise have considered staying. He begins to want, for the first time in a long time, people, not things. He wants a family. He wants Leander, something that at first seemed simple and grows more complex as Jak realizes that the thought of losing Leander actually hurts.
They’re not quite rivals, and not quite opposites, but as they get to know each other, Jak and Leander somehow become friends. Leander is forever after Jak to be a little less foolish with his money, a little more cautious of how he appears in public, and Jak is always poking Leander to have a little more fun, to be a little less repressed, and let himself love and be loved. It’s a very standard trope that is well-written and the couple have some honest moments of charm. When Jak promises to be faithful, it isn’t because Leander demands it, it’s because he wants to make Leander happy. Jak hasn’t had many people in his life with any bit of permanence, always being on the run from his past as a deserter, so the idea of changing himself — or at least controlling himself — for someone else is something new.
For Leander, he’s never enjoyed his sexuality as much as he has with Jak. He has had some fumbled encounters with other men in alleys or secret and secretive establishments, but those were always hurried and with an air of shame and sadness. Jak shows him how to be happy, how to be open to new experiences and open with his partner about what he wants. Leander learns to be happy in his own skin while, at the same time, letting himself see Jak for who he truly is. Not just a mage with a past, not just a scoundrel with a rather florid taste in clothing, but a young man who, like Leander, just wants to be happy and loved.
The magic in this story is interesting, and while there were hints of depth — a spirit world, and different ‘tastes’ of spirits and different approaches to them (Jak’s more laissez-fair approach versus the command and conquer style) — it was mostly glossed over in favor of the characters and their relationships. For example, there are dragons in this world — we know this because the Baroness wanted her clockwork dragon to be just like a real one — so how does that play out? What sort of dragons are they? The spirits trapped in clockwork, are they happy or sad, vengeful or resigned?
The economy left me a bit confused, as well. How do gems and precious metals work in this world if so much of them are spent in clockwork creations? The Baroness offers one hundred thousand dollars for the creation and enchanting of a giant, life-sized dragon, but how much is that worth when one considers it’s built mostly of gold and silver and gems? Are metals inexpensive and plentiful? How about gems? I didn’t feel like there was a real world in this book as much as a short-hand, a sketched out picture we’re supposed to finish on our own. It’s not a bad thing, but altogether I was left a bit unsatisfied with the world building.
The main villain in this book — and his plot — are introduced in the second half of this book and, while he reminds me a bit of the old-fashioned villains from cartoons (the ones who twirl their mustaches), there is an interesting scene where he forces Jak to fight another mage. The other mage and the way he fights versus Jak’s style of combat, the use of magic, feel almost there. While I appreciate the lack of exposition or a lengthy pause where Jak explains how magic works for the reader, I would have liked just a bit more magic. Fortunately this is the first book in a series and, as Jak is a mage, and given the ending of this book, I expect to see a lot more happening in book two.
This is an entertaining read if you’re a fan of aetherpunk or steampunk and I think Jak and Leander are a fun couple. Mostly I’m interested in clockwork creations like Silver the Cat, the giant dragon, and how the other mages handle Jak’s careless use of magic. He’s so very not-by-the-book. In fact, Jak probably sold the book for money, then used the money on food. Or a new coat. I hope, if you give this book a try, that you enjoy it as much as I did. It’s a fun summer read and I am very much looking forward to book two.