You wouldn't expect to find a magical healer, spies, assassins, and a quirky young gremlin in Buckeye, Arizona. But that's exactly where debut novelist Beth Cato created the fantastical steampunk world of her book, The Clockwork Dagger.
In Cato's take on Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, Octavia Leander, a powerful "medician" who uses her magical powers to heal others in her war-torn world, thought the airship she was traveling on was just transporting her to her first mission. When she discovers the airship is full of those plotting a deadly conspiracy, a cabin-mate with too many secrets, and a handsome steward who may be one of the Queen's spies or assassins known as the Clockwork Daggers, Octavia must fight to save herself, the ones she cares about, and possibly her entire world.
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Cato's novel walks the line between epic fantasy and steampunk, involving magic and mythical creatures while also being set in a mechanical, Victorian-esque world. But Cato wasn't always interested in these genres. Or rather, she was convinced that she shouldn't be.
Around age 12, Cato discovered the video game Final Fantasy 2 and immediately fell in love with the fantastic world portrayed within it, launching straight into immersing herself in the adult fantasy genre. However, after a college professor saw her reading a fantasy novel and told her "That's not a real book," she gave it up.
About 10 years later, she was home alone with her infant son while her husband was deployed in the Navy when she reconnected with this imaginative world.
"I was miserable," she says. "I was unfulfilled. I was like, 'Okay, I love my baby, but I need something that will exercise my brain and make me feel like I am accomplishing something for me.' I thought, 'I always wanted to be a writer, I should write.'"
So she did.
The Clockwork Dagger was not her first attempt at a novel. She'd completed several before, but she says those "will never see the light of day." It wasn't until Cato decided to write a story about a healer that things changed.
Admittedly, she was inspired by Final Fantasy, but in the game, the healers were always the sidekicks or supporting characters. Cato started to imagine a story where the heroine was a healer. Octavia Leander was born.
Cato wanted her heroine to be strong and independent, "a pacifist, but not a victim," saying that she based Octavia off of modern emergency workers. Even from the first few pages, this is evident.
The book opens with a scene during which Octavia saves a puppy after it was hit in the middle of the road. The gentle care and attention she gives the puppy while healing it sets the tone for the rest of the book. Octavia is first and foremost a healer to the extent that, even after she is almost murdered, her first concern is to heal her attempted murderer.
Yes, this book is dark and rather graphic, but that is exactly how Cato wanted it.
"I definitely always had that inclination [toward darker stories]," she says. "There's a catharsis, and it's a different kind. There's happy catharsis and there's the 'Whoa, that was intense.'"
Cato intends for her book to be the latter.
Ultimately, though, this amount of darkness is typical of the steampunk genre. While some may say The Clockwork Dagger is more of a fantasy novel than a steampunk one, Cato disagrees. Sure, she may have taken her story outside of the typically steampunk Victorian-era England, but the themes throughout Cato's book, including having strong, female characters, are right in line with modern steampunk literature.
For one, she was emphatic about ensuring that her cast wasn't white-washed but instead full of diversity, a common practice within steampunk. And so far, Cato has been pleased with the reactions she's received, especially from her son's middle school classmates when she showed them the cover of her book at Career Day. She says the kids were more interested in Alonzo, the man on the cover, than her heroine.
"They were thrilled to see [Alonzo] who was obviously a good guy and a strong positive character on the cover, and that just thrills me," she says. "To me, you just wanted to shake the publishing industry and say, 'See! People want more of this out there.' They want it to look like the real world and as colorful as the real world, and if I can have a small role in helping that along, then that's awesome. Icing on the cake."
For the time being, Cato plans to stay within the steampunk/fantasy world. A sequel to The Clockwork Dagger is set to be released in 2015, and she says she is working on a new story as well, this time set on our planet in 1906. We hope this is just the beginning of what we see from the Valley's newest steampunk/fantasy debut novelist.
The Clockwork Dagger is available to purchase now for $14.99. Beth Cato will be at the Tempe location of Changing Hands Friday, September 19, at 7 p.m. for a free reading. For more information, please see the event listing on Changing Hands' website.