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Three condemned criminals, a forger, an uncouth (but efficient) assassin, and a disgraced paladin in possession of a dead demon, are given a second chance. If they can travel to the neighbouring country and find out how the terrifying clockwork boys (deadly manufactured beings, more siege engine than creature) are made and how to stop them, they'll get a pardon. It's not much of a chance. They all think it's going to be a suicide mission. They are joined on their journey by a scholar, all innocence and preconceived ideas.
This is a quest tale. Four disparate individuals forming some kind of team, but what lifts it well above average is the characterisation and dialogue. Bleakly funny and heartbreaking by turns, I raced through this and immediately bought the second book, The Wonder Engine, because this is a story of two halves. This book deals with the journey, and now i need to know what happens when they arrive.
You'd probably not think a story about a group of criminals (beg pardon - criminals and a scholar) setting out on what's almost certainly a suicide mission would be funny - less so actually laugh-out-loud hilarious.
You'd be wrong.
While the book certainly has its darker moments - and I get the feeling it's only going to get grimmer from here - they're balanced by a wry humour which is Pratchettesque in its puncturing of fantasy tropes and truisms while staying firmly within the world and feel of the narrative. The story grabs you by the shoulders from the start and doesn't let go, but there's enough context given that within the first chapter you're pretty solidly aware of where the characters are, what they're doing, and exactly how likely they reckon it is that they'll survive all of this (answer: not very).
And speaking of the characters: T. Kingfisher has an ear for dialogue that's nothing short of perfect. The characters feel like real people, and, more than that, like people you /want/ to spend the book with. When they argue, it's over things which make sense - when they break and show weakness in front of each other, it's for reasons which /work/. And they've each of them a depth to them which suggests we've not yet scratched the surface of what they can do when they're pushed to it.
My only complaint? That the second book isn't out yet, so I can't find out what happens next.
This story has a wrapping of traditional fantasy, with a party and a quest, but that just covers a heart filled with wonderful weirdness. In the same vein, Kingfisher writes with a light touch that covers some real heart. The characters are well-drawn, so much so that I couldn't name a favourite, and the story is engaging - who are the Clockwork Boys really? Why does the demon-hunting paladin have a dead demon possessing his soul? Why does this quest really need a burglarising forger along? This is all set in a land whose map would consider the notation "here be dragons" to be a bit staid and boring. The only flaw I can find is that I have to wait for book 2.
I love this book. I liked the characters, I went along with the plot and although I was dubious about the introduction of a cute furry I was reassured by his/its...whatever's name - Grimehug and I was right. The gnoles (and Grimehug is a gnole) are - well - interesting but worth getting to know. The heroine, a forger with issues, and her companions, with even bigger problems are real and human and you want them to succeed. I thoroughly recommend this book.
Fantasy is often not done right. Clockwork boys isn't fantasy done right, it's just story telling and character writing done right. It's world building done right. This is a book that makes you go "Wow, how did this slip past me?" It's a book that makes you hope Netflix or Amazon want to make a series.