I’ll be honest, there’s no way I would have read The Clockwork Dagger by Beth Cato if it hadn’t been nominated for a Locus award. For one, as I’ve ranted about previously, I’m not a fan of steampunk. And for two, the cover, while not awful, has a generic quality that puts it in the same category as paranormal romance and urban fantasy – genres I don’t tend to pro-actively read.

But in spite of these hard-coded prejudices, I found myself really enjoying The Clockwork Dagger. The novel has its flaws, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s also immediately engaging.  I’d expected it would be another slice of steampunk set in a faux 19th Century England with characters who wear goggles and where dirigibles and zeppelins dot the sky. And while The Clockwork Dagger does have those elements – the goggles and the zeppelins – what I found surprising and compelling was that rather than rely on a more traditional setting, the novel features a textured and layered secondary fantasy world with an intriguing magical system that works nicely alongside the steampunk.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Octavia Leander, an orphan who is brought under the wing of Miss Percival where she is taught to be a medican – a healer. It soon becomes clear that Octavia is gifted, that she has unparalleled access to the magical forces that allow medicans to aid the sick and dying. When the novel begins Octavia has been sent on her first mission to assist the town of Delford where the people are suffering from a plague. The problem is that the two warring forces on this secondary fantasy world – the Caskentia and the Wasters – know that Octavia is special and both have plans for her.

There’s a breathlessness to the world building as Cato moves rapidly from describing the political situation, to explaining how Octavia performs her magic, to the appearance of gremlins, creatures engineered in a laboratory that are attracted to silver. The introduction of all these concepts, while definitely adding depth to Cato’s world, does suffer from a case of info dumping-itis. But I’m willing to give it a pass because you can see that Cato is striving to do something different here, to fuse together a variety of subgenres (steampunk, fantasy, romance) and produce a setting that’s not entirely original but has a unique quality. And when the book does finally settle down, and we get into the meat of Octavia’s story, I was pleasingly wrong-footed by a number of the revelations.

As much as I enjoyed the novel, I wasn’t always that fond of Octavia. I liked that she wasn’t willing to abide by the sexist attitudes of the men around her, but I found her angst over how people were dying because of what she is to be repetitive. Yes, I can see why she’d be upset. When she left Miss Percival she was unprepared for the violence and death that ultimately follows her. But there’s a point where the constant self blaming becomes annoying. In addition, Octavia’s relationship with Alonzo, a steward on the airship who she is immediately attracted to and who turns out to be more than he seems, was a subplot I never cared much about. It’s not that I have an issue with romance in my books, it’s just that the progression of the relationship is probably one of the more predictable aspects of the novel.

Overall, though, The Clockwork Dagger is an entertaining read set in a secondary world that’s different and surprising and, refreshingly, not what I expected at all.