Thank you to Fireside Fiction Company for sending me a copy of The Clockwork Empire to review!
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the Roman Empire still stands strong. Mechanically-remade soldiers protect the empire’s borders from outside threats, while politics at home rot Rome from the inside out.
When an ambitious senator takes down the family of the sickly former noble Julian, he forces the boy into servitude. He must assist in his master’s experiments “remaking” human bodies with clockwork, but when Julian himself becomes a test subject, he finds the strength to flee.
While trying to reunite with his family, Julian comes across Lia Song, a praetorian guard framed as a traitor. Alongside Lia, a spy, a pilot, an ex-slave and a remade warrior, the crew fights to take down the senator and the authoritarian state the Roman Empire has become.
The Clockwork Empire is a great first novel by Lucas J.W. Johnson. It’s full of genuinely ambitious worldbuilding, perfect for steampunk fans and alternate history lovers alike. Clockwork drones deliver messages, soldiers are remade with metal and pirated steamships soar the skies. Meanwhile, Johnson hints at the broader world with enticing mentions of a still-thriving Aztec Empire and an immense American trade route.
There’s also great LGBTQ+ representation throughout the novel. Nonbinary, ace and gay characters, among others, live openly, and homophobia is the least of their worries. In The Clockwork Empire’s official announcement, Fireside Fiction’s executive editor and owner said, “I’m calling it a labor of love — love for people on the margins, love for the LGBTQIA+ community, love for love for people on the margins, love for the those who would stand in the way of fascism.”
The only issue I had with The Clockwork Empire is a slightly disjointed ending. Part Four begins with a trial interspersed with flashbacks, a style throwing off the story flow for me. Still, the action picked right up after that for a satisfying conclusion and the possibility of a sequel.
I’m looking forward to checking out more of Johnson’s work. While The Clockwork Empire is his first novel, he’s also the founder and studio director of Silverstring Media, a narrative design studio working in video games. Johnson wrote several award-winning games, including Glitchhikers (finalist for Best Indie Game of 2014 at the Canadian Videogame Awards), Extrasolar (Indiecade finalist) and Timespinner.
If you’re looking for queer characters fighting fascism in a steampunk world, The Clockwork Empire is perfect. Check out Fireside Fiction’s official page for the book here. The Clockwork Empire comes out on June 28 and is available for preorder now from your local independent bookstore or Bookshop.org.
TW: amputation, death, explosions, forced surgery, medical trauma, panic attacks, torture