Wolfboy Romeo, meet clockwork Juliet. I’m sure you’ll get along great.
Glibness aside, this is one of the most enjoyable takes on the classic tragedy I’ve ever read – due in part to the clever reworking of some of the tragic bits. After all, when your Capulets work in elaborate robotics and your Montagues in Frankenstein-style creature creations, it’s not easy to just kill off a Juliet who runs on gears or a Romeo whose stitched-up chest holds two hearts.
In a city where science equals mad science, its top practitioners show off their work in a competition at the annual fair. For two brilliant scientists, Wilhelm the Tinkerer and Dendrus the Grafter, this once-friendly rivalry has become a bitter feud. This year, Wilhelm has outdone himself, producing a robot that thinks and feels – a clockwork girl.
The clockwork girl wins the competition, but she also catches the eye of Huxley, the “monster boy” who earned Dendrus the prize at last year’s fair. Huxley makes a secret visit that night to meet Tesla, the clockwork girl. Newly-built, she doesn’t yet know much about the world, but she’s already figuring out something Huxley knows too well: what it’s like to be handmade, misunderstood, different. Unfortunately, their friendship is jeopardized by the determination of their respective “fathers” to keep Tesla and Huxley apart.
The pacing feels a little rushed sometimes; this is a short book, but it pulls off a lot. It’s particularly impressive how closely the events of The Clockwork Girl parallel those of Romeo and Juliet, though always with a fun twist appropriate to the setting and characters. After seeing Tesla at the fair, Huxley makes a night visit to her window – but it’s the window of a mechanical fortress, and Huxley uses his not-quite-human climbing ability to scale the wall. Shakespeare would surely predict the outcome of the encounter between Tesla’s robot “brother” T-Bolt and Huxley’s friend Maddox (pronounce Mer-cue-she-oh), but he might not foresee how these things can be patched up (literally) by a mad scientist.
Along with the lack of death, a few tweaks to the characters make the story gentler than the original. Wilhelm the Tinkerer and Dendrus the Grafter are – oddly enough – more humanized than most of the Capulets and Montagues. They worry for their “children,” and, upon meeting, are more likely to engage in a one-sided snarkfest than a swordfight. While there are hints of a someday-romance between Tesla and Huxley, they are children, and are primarily friends. Indeed, their relationship may appeal more to readers – especially young readers – than Romeo and Juliet’s, as Tesla and Huxley owe their closeness largely to actual common ground. There’s also some playful humor that, while accessible to young readers, will make older readers smile.
The art is gorgeous. Full-color glossy pages show a world of gears and strange creatures, abounding in laboratories and scientists with delightfully outrageous hairstyles. Despite being a robot and a “monster,” Tesla and Huxley are undeniably adorable. The pages are awash with purple and green – most of the book’s world seems to be cast in garish lighting, making everyone look rather unhealthy, but these things fit the story and in no way hide the skill of the coloring or the excellent character and background designs. Note, however, that you can judge none of this from the cover – bizarrely, it is drawn in a style completely different from that of the rest of the book. While the “pin-up” images and character designs done by various artists at the front and back of the book are understood to be separate from the story, and are fun reimaginings of the characters’ appearances, it does seem a strange idea to put art so different on the cover.
A movie of this book, directed by one of its creators, is slated to come out in 2011.