Four hundred years ago, in a small town in rural France, a young woman creates the future in the shape of Rupetta. Part mechanical, part human, Rupetta’s consciousness is tied to the women who wind her. In the years that follow she is bought and sold, borrowed, forgotten and revered. By the twentieth century, the Rupettan four-fold law rules everyone’s lives, but Rupetta—the immortal being on whose existence and history those laws are based—is the keeper of a secret that will tear apart the world her followers have built in her name. 

This stunning new novel by award-winning Australian writer Nike Sulway invokes the great tradition of European fantasy/horror fiction and moves it forward in a superbly imaginative, highly original fashion.

Rupetta won the 2013 Tiptree award and was nominated for an Aurealis in the science fiction category.  You only need to read the first few pages of the book to understand why it gained critical attention.  Beginning with the Foreword, Rupetta – who shares the book’s narrative with the historian Henri – tells us that:

I have known loss for centuries.  I have borne the deaths of each of my companions, both dear and tolerated.  I have lost families, loves, houses, villages.  Whole cities, whole nations, have grown and decayed while I persisted.  I have seen rivers change their course, mountains beaten down into hills, oceans swell and subside, seeds grow into great trees only to fall and die and rot.  And yet this loss – the loss of one child – this loss I cannot bear.

If I were human I would weep.

It’s epic and it’s personal and it sets the scene of what’s to come – both in terms of the story and the quality of the writing.  Echoing the intricate cogs and wheels that make up Rupetta’s heart, there’s something both beautiful and meticulous about the prose.  As if each word has been carefully checked and polished to ensure it fits with the word that comes before it and the one that comes after.

But while it’s a delight to read, I never truly engaged with Rupetta’s or Henri’s story.  The writing is evocative but also very earnest, lacking a sense of humour.  The subject matter – twisted faith and historical truth, power and subjugation –  doesn’t lend itself to a slap and a laugh.  But that means that Rupetta and Henri feel one note, always serious even when they’re falling in love.

I also didn’t entirely believe in the world that Sulway has created.  Its antecedents are clearly in steampunk, Rupetta is a clockwork automaton who becomes sentient.  The added wrinkle is that her clockwork heart needs to be wound by someone who has an intimate and psychic bond with her.  Neither Rupetta’s sentience nor the psychic link is adequately explained, we’re asked to take them on face value.  And yet it’s a process that can be replicated to some degree as the privileged few are granted the possible gift of immortality with the replacement of their organic heart with a clockwork facsimile.  Given that people don’t drop dead after the operation, and they seem to live longer lives, I can only assume that whatever magic brought Rupetta into being also plays a role in the Transformation.  I just wish this had been better explained.

But maybe I’m being pedantic and anal.  This isn’t really a book about the science of Rupetta.  Rather it’s an exploration and critique of the religion and culture that has formed since her re-discovery.  The books strength – especially in the first half – is understanding the role a reluctant Rupetta played in the radical development of her society.  What’s interesting here is how Rupetta’s story is at odds with the ‘historical’ truth that’s been built around her – something that Henri becomes aware of.  It’s this conflict between truth and faith that drives the themes and plot of the story.

What I also found refreshing – and what I’m sure caught the eye of the Tiptree judges – is the central role that strong, empowered women of different ideologies and backgrounds play in the formation of their society.  It’s a woman, Eloise, that builds Rupetta.  It’s a woman that re-discovers Rupetta after she’s been left unwound and forgotten.  That same woman, Kamila, introduces the Fourfold Rupettan Law.  And its courageous women, forced to live in the nooks and crannies of their society, who fight against those who slavishly uphold the Fourfold Law.

However, while I can acknowledge the books strengths and appreciate why it’s won and been nominated for awards, at the end of it all, the novel never entirely worked for me.  I should have been more engaged with Rupetta’s tale and Henri’s search for the truth.  And yet more often than not I found my attention drifting.