by Terrance Mc Arthur
This week we have a review and giveaway of steampunk fantasy novel Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato, along with a fun interview with Beth, who is originally from our neck of the woods, Hanford, California. Details at the end of this post on how to win a copy of the book and a link to purchase the book where a portion goes to help support KRL & indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy.
The Clockwork Crown by Beth Cato
Review by Terrance McArthur
Olivia is a medician, a woman with great healing powers as part of her worship of Our Lady’s Tree. She is fleeing the Kingdom of Caskentia because the Clockwork Daggers, a secret unit (that everybody knows about) under the Queen’s command, is after her, and the rebels of the cursed land called the Waste are out to capture her, too. She is armed with medicinal herbs and Alonzo, a former Dagger who quit to protect her. Olivia’s life is quite complicated in The Clockwork Crown by Hanford native Beth Cato.
The steampunk elements of Cato’s first book, The Clockwork Dagger, take a back seat to the religious and fantasy concepts. There are less mentions of lighter-than-air craft (zeppelins), although there is time to throw in artificially-created gremlins of unusual size that are worked like anime mechas or those giant puppets that are built to wander around cities as a tourist attraction. The power and nature of the Tree are changing, so Olivia goes on a scavenger hunt after information and objects that would help her understand why she seems to be suffering from a strange form of psoriasis.
There are Dagger assassins, an invisible Tree, kidnapped virgins, a missing princess who writes pulp novels, paranormal paramedics, dead characters that aren’t, prosthetic limbs, an unwilling parcel post, and a reunion with a betrayer, more than enough action to fill nearly 400 pages.
Cato has a light, playful touch that shines through the wannabe love scenes where there is a lot of heavy breathing but hardly any touching. There are a number of “I don’t get—0h, yes I do” moments, when questions are answered without being asked. There is gruesome death that isn’t graphic, patriotic bad guys with honor, and definite resolution of the mystery and conflict. Nevertheless, there are issues that are left crying, begging for another sequel, even if this was only supposed to be a two-part series.
The Clockwork Crown is just the ticket for readers who like their steampunk leavened with fantasy, don’t need physical gymnastics in their romance, want to think about the ethics of healing, and are into sentient botany. It’s like chicken soup—it couldn’t hurt.
Interview with Beth Cato
KRL: How long have you been writing?
Beth: I was an odd four-year-old who was illustrating and stapling together my own books. I had the lofty dream of growing up to be a published writer, but in my late teens, real life hit and I stopped reading and writing. I resumed writing about ten years ago when I was stuck at home with a baby, and a husband on naval deployment. It took me years to gather the confidence to send out short stories to magazines.
KRL: When did your first novel come out? What was it called? Please tell us a little about it?
Beth: My first novel is a steampunk fantasy novel called The Clockwork Dagger. It came out last September from Harper Voyager. The original concept was to write a steampunk take on Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, with a healer in peril.
KRL: How fun. Have you always written fantasy? If not what else have you written?
Beth: Fantasy has always been one of my great loves but I write across genres. I’ve published historical fiction, science fiction, and literary works. I’ve had stories in over a dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and have published almost a hundred poems.
KRL: What brought you to choose the setting and characters in your latest book/series? Please tell us a little about the setting and main character for your most recent book.
Beth: To start with the subject of my main character, Octavia Leander is a medician, essentially a doctor with healing magic. I’ve had a thing for healers since I first played Final Fantasy II for Super Nintendo back when I was 11. Whenever I played Dungeons & Dragons, or any other role-playing game, I controlled the healer, or named the healer after myself. I really wanted to write a book with a heroine with that kind of power, because they rarely get to be the central protagonist.
I decided to write my own steampunk setting because it’s something I have loved for years, long before it was called steampunk. When steampunk emerged as a literary genre, I was there, preordering Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest’s books. I made my setting different by basing it on World War I and the Edwardian era rather than the usual Victorian of steampunk.
KRL: Do you write to entertain or is there something more you want the readers to take away from your work?
Beth: I do try to add some depth in whatever I write—genuine emotion and conflict—but I also want it to be fun. No matter what I intend, though, it’s all up to the individual reader in the end, and everyone has their own unique takeaway from a story.
KRL: Do you have a schedule for your writing or just write whenever you can?
Beth: Writing is my job and I work every single day. My life revolves around writing, revising, and promotional work, and taking care of my autistic son. My husband has a crazy work schedule, so the kid duties are mostly on me.
KRL: Do you outline? If not, do you have some other interesting way that you keep track of what’s going on, or what needs to happen in your book when you are writing it?
Beth: Ooooh, yes, I am an outliner. My novel outlines end up thousands of words long and are color-coded to denote subplots and characters. I even outline my flash fiction—stories about a thousand words in length. Mind you, the outlines might change a lot as I go, and often my endings come as a surprise. That’s part of the fun of it. Things continue to evolve as I revise.
KRL: If you had your ideal, what time of day would you prefer to write?
Beth: When my son is in school, my most productive time is definitely from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a break in there for lunch. I drink my Crystal Light with Caffeine and pound out the words!
KRL: Did you find it difficult to get published in the beginning?
Beth: Yes. It was hard for me to send out work, period. I didn’t handle rejection well at all. I started sending stories to non-paying markets, then to ones that paid a few dollars, then to semi-pro magazines. I kept working on novels during that time and eventually worked up the courage to have my work critiqued. I felt like all my dreams were set to come true when I signed with a literary agent, but then she was unable to sell that book. The Clockwork Dagger was my next effort.
KRL: Future writing goals?
Beth: Sell more books to readers! Sell another book series to my publisher! Crack some major short story markets that keep rejecting my work! (Yes, I still collect piles of rejections. Being a published novelist doesn’t change that.)
KRL: Writing heroes?
Beth: Elizabeth Moon, because she’s a prolific fantasy and science fiction writer, and raised an autistic son while building her career, and C.E. Murphy, because her Walker Papers urban fantasy series taught me how to write first person and create an engaging plot. I’ve been able to tell both of them how they inspired me—to Mrs. Moon in person—and they have been sweet and supportive. C.E. Murphy even provided a blurb for The Clockwork Dagger! It actually made me cry.
KRL: What kind of research do you do?
Beth: Whatever the story or book needs. I recently had a short story, “Roots, Shallow and Deep,” in Urban Fantasy Magazine. The story is inspired by the 1880 Mussel Slough Tragedy near my hometown of Hanford. I had already read several relevant books on San Joaquin Valley history, but with the story in mind, I read about a thousand more pages and jotted down notes. This was for a six-thousand word story. I have another steampunk series in the works and I’ve read dozens of books for that, and I continue to read more. I’m a history geek. I really like having an excuse to read this stuff!
KRL: What do you read?
Beth: Lots of science fiction and fantasy, but also historical fiction, mysteries, literary fiction, young adult, middle grade, nonfiction of all sorts.
KRL: Favorite TV or movies?
Beth: I really enjoy Daredevil on Netflix, Whose Line Is It Anyway, Sleepy Hollow, Castle, and The Musketeers. My all-time favorite movie is The Empire Strikes Back, but some recent favorites are Big Hero Six, and The Lego Movie.
KRL: Any advice for aspiring or beginning writers?
Beth: Understand that you’re here to learn. Every story or book means you’re starting from scratch, and that can be depressing and frustrating. It’s still that way for published novelists, too. It’s terrifying, but you have to stick with it to succeed. Define that success however you want to. It’s your journey.
KRL: Anything you would like to add?
Beth: Thanks for having me here! It’s extra special for me to be interviewed by someone from back home.
KRL: Thanks for being here with us! What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
Beth: Every Wednesday at BethCato.com, I post a new recipe. My decadent cookies have quite the reputation. My husband takes most of my creations to his work, where his co-workers say I’m trying to kill them with diabetes.
KRL: Website? Twitter? Facebook?
KRL: You are originally a local girl and grew up in Hanford correct? When did you move away and where are you located now?
Beth: Yes! I was born in Hanford, lived in nearby Armona to age seven, then lived in Hanford until age 20. My parents always told me, “Never get involved with a sailor from Lemoore. You’ll have to move away.” So I fell for a guy and THEN he joined the Navy. We lived in South Carolina, then near Seattle, and then my husband left the Navy and we settled in Arizona in 2007. Hanford is always home to me. I dream of it at night. I cry every time I leave. I’d move back in a heartbeat if I could.
Book specific questions:
KRL: Lighter-than-air craft were a major part of The Clockwork Dagger, but they are mostly background scenery in The Clockwork Crown. Why did the emphasis change from steampunk technology to steampunk metaphysics?
Beth: It’s what the plot needed. Most of The Clockwork Dagger took place on one airship. The Clockwork Crown moves quickly across a large portion of geography. The biggest steampunk element is probably in the gremlins, which are kind of Frankenstein-like creations pieced together through magic and technology.
KRL: Octavia heals through herbs and the power of the Lady’s Tree she worships. How much did you develop the Lady/Tree religion beyond what we see in the books?
Beth: I wrote up extensive notes on everything when I first started work on The Clockwork Dagger. I have pages on the herbs alone, detailing where they can be found, what they smell like, how to harvest them, and how the Lady’s power draws on them to heal. The Clockwork Crown really develops the Lady’s Tree as a character, and I was able work in many elements from my notes, and had some surprises emerge as I wrote, too.
KRL: “Dagger” and “Crown” are a duology, a two-part series, and it ends with a satisfying tying up of ends. Still, there seem to be some issues that would invite further books involving Octavia, Alonzo, and the kingdom of Caskentia. You are publishing prequel stories, but what are the chances for future Clockwork novels?
Beth: I’m not opposed to the idea! I love writing about these people and it’s odd to think of letting them go. I’m glad that I’ll have at least another novella and short story set in that world. I do have another steampunk series in the works, though, that takes place in California.
KRL: Your short stories have a light, cheerful air, filling the page with talkative sidewalks, and date-bound gorgons trying to find a hair-stylist who does snakes. Even your apocalypses have a lighter side. How do you keep a positive outlook in your fiction?
Beth: I’ve suffered from severe depression. To me, it’s very important that no matter what sort of hell my characters endure, there has to be a sense of hope. I can take them to rock bottom—heck, the world might be about to end—but there’s still that spark in the darkness, that reason to smile. Sometimes that’s all we have. That’s all we need.
To enter to win a copy of The Clockwork Crown, simply email KRL at krlcontests@gmail[dot]com by replacing the [dot] with a period, and with the subject line “Crown,” or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen June 13, 2015. U.S. residents only. If entering via email please include your mailing address.
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