Review: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Clockwork Angel The Infernal Devices Book 1 by Cassandra Clare Review: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Steampunk and its various derivatives are all the rage right now, it seems, with one scarcely unable to turn a corner without seeing a young lady hidden beneath the shadow of a parasol, or a young man showily pompous beneath the decorative pomp of his cravat. While the plasticky textures and excesses of cyberpunk were perfect for the flashy 80s, steampunk seems to indicate some underlying social desire for velvet, puns, and poorly conceived technology. Steampunk is less an ideology and more a fashion, which is perhaps why its been taken up so heartily by young readers: velvet? Lace? Witty repartee? Cucumber sandwiches? Pimms? Mechanical whatsits? Authors such as Gail Carriger, Cherie Priest, Jay Lake, Philip Reeve, and China Mieville (despite his assertion that he writes New Weird, not steampunk), have gone nuts on the stuff, and their readers have taken it up with zeal. If youve been following the surprisingly promptly moving steampunk bandwagon, you might well have heard of a YA author known as Cassandra Clare, known for her best-selling Mortal Instruments trilogy, which has, with Clockwork Angel, moved into prequel-dom. I have to admit that until this novel I was, although aware of, unfamiliar with Clares work, and it was with some glee with which I settled in to read this rather beautiful tome. Cucumber sandwiches and tennis set cup and saucer at hand, of course.


When Tessa Gray travels to gloomy, scourge-ridden London in search of her brother Nate, she expects terrible weather, terrible food and similarly terrible dentistry. Things that she is not expecting, however, include: two nasty witchy-poo lassies with kidnapping tendencies; a suddenly revealed ability to shape-shift; a quick-to-violence vigilante group full of spunky men and plucky women; and a few mixed up baddies intent on Taking Over the World. Also a potential love triangle, because no good over-seas journey is complete without such a complicating factor. Yet, while a typical English lass would be aware the best approach to ensuring ones longevity in these Victorian times is probably to sit back, nibble on a scone and, er, think of England, 'Tessas inherent American verve sees her turn to buffy-esque butt-kicking ways instead, and she soon finds herself fighting the good fight against all manner of vamps, scoundrels, and wind-up armies exhibiting the chilling determination of biblical golems. But the battle between good and evil is not such an easy thing to fight, particularly when the two sides are so difficult to tease apart, and as things unfold in rather unexpected ways, Tessa finds herself struggling to make the right choices.

My thoughts

With its grim, Dickensian setting, convoluted plot machinations, and larger than life characters, Clockwork Angel is a heady introduction to the work of Cassandra Clare, and one can immediately see how her work has such wide appeal. Theres a confidence to Clares writing that seems to emanate from the pages: her prose, plotting, and characterisation are polished and assured, and an ability to allow her narrative to fall neatly within the confines of her page extent, rather than falling prey to hazy allusions and suggestions, or to slip into info-dump format. While obviously my lack of familiarity with the Mortal Instrument series means that I cant adequately judge how this novel ties in with the others, I can say that it easily stands alone, requiring no great familiarity with Clares earlier work.

While I did enjoy Clockwork Angel, I did find that a good deal of it felt familiar to me. This is perhaps because Ive read fairly widely in this genre, or perhaps because Clockwork Angel draws on a number of standard tropes in its construction. While the nineteenth century London setting helps to inject a good deal of bleakness and despair into the novel, one wonders whether choosing this setting isnt merely a shortcut that allows the author to avoid creating a more bespoke sense of the same, and there are times when the setting is veritably shoehorned into the plot as a way of upping the atmosphere. A similar issue occurs with the characters who, although fun to read, are never really given any real depth, relying largely on endless witticisms and ambiguous dark pasts to give some facsimile of complexity. When it comes to character in Clockwork Angel, cliche abounds, with every character easily distilled down to a few key traits on a character chart. Clares evident love for her characters shines through a little too strongly, too, with the rambling, digressive discourse between Will, Jem, and Tessa stretching to incomprehensible lengths in just about every scene, and Will and Tessa participating in unfathomably ridiculous literary quotation competitions. Time and time again Wills raffish charm (and almost unbearable obnoxiousness) is underscored, Jems quiet sweetness and tormented history are trotted out, and Tessas romantic ambivalence is raised (good god, girl, stop drawing parallels with Pride and Prejudice and admit that Wills a prat), and while the banter accompanying all of this is occasionally tight and well-written, it becomes dreadfully tiresome after some five hundred or so pages.

The plot, too, although tightly plotted and with its share of twisty goodness, is also familiar, offering up themes of selflessness and redemption against what is by now fairly well-promenaded steampunk ground. Theres no denying that its fun, because Clare never ceases to up the ante as far as tension goes (which is a good thing, given the books slow beginning), but its hard to deny that niggling voice at the back of ones mind that snidely asks, so? In a sense, theres a lack of gravity to the plot: while things happendastardly things, oh yesIm not so sure that theyre important enough that they need an entire book devoted to their cause, and while as a whole the book is technically sound and neatly composed, I cant help but wonder whether some of Clares longer-term readers will come away with the feeling that theyve just read a piece of very professional fan fiction. The plot coheres, but everything feels almost formalised, and perhaps too finely wrought, leaving the book without the delightful messiness thats so essential to this genre. Perhaps the worst example of this is the painful Scooby Doo-esque reveal at the end of the book, a plot point that while no doubt seeming to work well during initial planning stages, doesnt really work with the dark atmosphere and sophisticated narrative that Clare has expended so much effort trying to build.


Clockwork Angel is a deftly written romp offering some beautiful writing and no small amount of 'Plain Good Fun, and Clare works hard to capture the feel and nuance of Victorian London, something helped along by selecting an outsider as her main character. However, irreverence, humour, and foppishness are injected in overdose-worthy volumes, leaving the reader a little overwhelmed at times, particularly when this tone is in contrast with the reasonably dark narrative. In all, while I enjoyed this, the caricatured characters, overemphasis on dialogue, too-neat plot, and reliance on setting to create mood stopped me from engaging with it as much as I would have liked.

Rating: ????? (good)

With thanks to Walker Book Australia for the review copy

Purchase Clockwork Angel from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

Other books by Cassandra Clare:

city of glass cassandra clare Review: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clarecity of bones cassandra clare Review: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clarecity of ashes clare Review: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare

Related Posts with Thumbnails