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The Globe and Mail

Rock meets steampunk in weird and wonderful ‘Clockwork Angels’

Kevin J. Anderson in a photo from his blog

Clockwork Angels
Kevin J. Anderson
ECW Press

Two megabrands, one steampunk world. Clockwork Angels is the brainchild of goliath science-fiction writer Kevin J. Anderson and Rush lyricist Neil Peart. This novel is good fun. Peart sketched the story in the band's latest album, also called Clockwork Angels. Novelist Anderson expanded, riffing about a small-town kid who explores a wide steampunk world. Mantra: "I can't stop thinking big/ I can't stop thinking big." In this place, clockwork, alchemy and sorcery are the pillars of modern science. Crackling with "elemental lightning," floating coldfire globes illuminate the capital city "like private suns." The result is nostalgic, weird and wonderful.

Bestselling powerhouse Anderson has written more than 100 books, including the Terra Incognita fantasy series and contributions to the Star Wars, StarCraft, The X-Files and Dune machines. Rush is … well, Rush – dramatic, ambitious, strange, with more than 40 million albums sold. Friends Peart and Anderson have collaborated before. Their 1994 short story Drumbeats is a well-executed thriller set in Cameroon, featuring a rock-and-roll drummer and a shaman's curse.

According to the afterword in Clockwork Angels, this time Anderson and Peart found inspiration in Voltaire's Candide. They decided to follow an optimistic youth who finds pain and misadventure in the wide world. Rolling Stone magazine lovingly compared the Rush album to a "sermon from the peak of Mount Nerd." The book is equally strange and lofty.

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The story: Owen Hardy is a 16-year-old orchard worker who prefers daydreams to drudgery. Unfortunately the Watchmaker regulates everything: crops, weather and even dreams. The Watchmaker rules from Crown City, as a kind of philosopher overlord, and he promises to extend his perfect "Stability" everywhere, even the celestial orbits. When Owen shirks his orchard job to seek his fortune, the decision is racy and rebellious – or so he thinks. The Watchmaker lurks, fixing Owen in the eyes of his intrusive destiny calculator.

The elements are great. Owen rides dirigible airships. He meets the nefarious Anarchist, communes with a clockwork gypsy, loves an acrobat and learns he has an "other mother" – a parallel version of Owen's late Mumsie, working as an interdimensional travel writer. Of course, the clockwork angels are the crowning gems, and transcendentally kitsch. High atop the Crown City, these mechanical goddesses, or "spiritual machinery," unfurl their massive wings to the lyrics from the third track on the Rush album. Highlight: "Lean not on your own understanding/ Ignorance is well and truly blessed."

Maybe next time Peart and Anderson might consider creating an app with all their wonderfully rich media; however, these artists took a risk and created something weird and fun in a time where the future of multimedia lit might seem like science fiction. Clockwork Angels could even carry a message for other artists: Don't stop thinking big.

Kelly McManus writes from Victoria.

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