Amid the several highly anticipated children’s and YA works this year by big names such as Suzanne Collins and Rick Riordan, one can be forgiven for missing the entry onto the stage of Matthew Kirby’s first novel, The Clockwork Three. Forgiven, but no longer excused, for among all those much more hyped releases (though they are often justifiably hyped), this stands out as among the best. There. Now you know. You should get it.
The Clockwork Three follows, no surprise, three characters. One is Giuseppe, a young busker sold off by his uncle in Italy to America where he is forced to give over the nightly coins he receives for playing his fiddle to his villainous padrone Stephano. Another is Hannah, a young girl recently forced by her father’s illness to take up a maid position in the local grand hotel under the villainous manager Miss Wool. The third is Frederick, a young clockwork apprentice to the villainous Master Branch. Just kidding. Master Branch is actually quite kind and paternal (Frederick’s villain is the woman who headed Frederick’s former home, an orphanage/sweatshop).
All three youths have a goal that drives them forward through the book’s action: Frederick to gain his journeyman status by completing a clockwork man, Giuseppe to escape Stephano and return home to Italy, and Hannah to make enough money to keep her family going. All three have a precipitating event that jumpstarts them forward. Giuseppe finds an amazing green violin that enhances his already prodigious musical gift and starts the coins rolling in faster than ever. Hannah’s father takes a sudden turn for the worse. Frederick’s master gets a commission. The three protagonists cleverly and subtly intersect at first, then gradually more often and directly, then eventually become friends who decide to help one another achieve his/her respective goal.
The setting and characters are familiar: some Dickens, with cruel orphanages and Fagan-like exploiters; a little steampunk (very little) patina laid over it all via Frederick’s attempt to create a clockwork man for his journeyman piece; a kind and helpful woodsman, a gentle and helpful old woman with herbs, etc. But the excellence of the book doesn’t derive from its originality so much as its execution.
Hannah and Giuseppe’s stories are the most intense and urgent at first, with their risk of immediate tragedy, but when they become embroiled in Frederick’s completion of the automaton, that strand picks up intensity as well with a late-night break-in, several chase scenes, and a pair of enforcers.
The three children are all highly believable in their actions, speech, interactions, and growth. They edge toward each slowly and shyly, at times with a little mistrust. They make mistakes, act at times without regard to consequence, and put others at risk beyond themselves. In short, they act like young people. Unlike in many children’s books, here the adults are present and offer up a spectrum of roles, from out-and-out villain to justified antagonist to kindly helper. And again, the interactions between the adults and the kids are quite believable and often quietly touching. Each of the children has an adult patron of sorts: Frederick has Master Branch; Hannah has her new employer, the wonderful Madame Pomeroy; and Giuseppe, to a far lesser extent, has a local priest. In a nicely heartbreaking twist, though, Giuseppe — rather than have a true adult protector — must himself play that role to a younger, more vulnerable busker.
The writing throughout The Clockwork Three is tight and sharp, vivid and evocative. While Giuseppe plays his violin for a group of factory workers, “he freed them from the city like pigeons from an opened coop, and they took to the sky in droves.” When Hannah looks at her despairing mother at one point, “behind her eyes it was like someone had set fire to an empty building.” There are some simply beautiful lines and the writing is so tight and the pacing so well-handled that when I told my 9-year-old (and my wife) that this should be their next book, I said it was about 200 pages long. I was shocked when I picked it up to hand over and realized it was nearly 400. There’s no scene I’d remove, and it isn’t often I say that. The Clockwork Three is a book with soul and heart, conveyed by crisp and at times poetic language. Highly recommended.