Review: The Clockwork Empire by Lucas J.W. Johnson

My Quick Take: What a delight! This steampunk, alternate future Roman novel that has a diverse, rag-tag group fighting authoritarianism marries adventure and anti-fascism.


Sometimes there are LFL finds that sing to a Bookstagrammer’s soul. I found The Clockwork Empire waiting for me on an evening walk. Propped against the other books, the cover art by Guy-Pascal Vallez caught my interest and the book blurb grabbed me. But what was inside sealed the deal. The author signed the copy with a message: “To whoever finds this, always fight fascism, thanks for reading!” along with a note mentioning he’s a Vancouver writer in the neighbourhood. There was no way that I was NOT going to read it, right?

And here’s the kicker: I really enjoyed this! Johnson has crafted a very readable, quite well-written novel that moved along at a good pace and didn’t fail to deliver on plot, character or world-building. It’s relatively short so it doesn’t delve too deep into character study, but the trade-off is a novel chock full of interesting steampunk and important themes. Oh, and many inventive ways of swearing using the Roman gods.

So this is a future where Rome never fell. The Empire is strong and is shifting from a republic towards dictatorship in one Senator Vivarius. Colonies are rebelling, but any dissent is met with oppression. The future is fascist. The story follows several characters who eventually band together to fight Vivarius, while fighting self-doubt questioning their powerlessness. Can one person make a difference? How can small groups spur change?

As an action-packed, fun book to read, there was a lot to like. The cutting edge of science is thaumaturgy, which I had to look up and is an actual word meaning the work of miracles, or magic. In The Clockwork Empire, it’s not magic, but rather pushing the boundaries of what can be done with machines. In this case, much of it has to do with melding machine and human. As I read, I couldn’t help but picture Doctor Who cybermen! Modifying humans is a tricky business in the Roman Empire, and ethically problematic.

Ex-nobleman Julius, a young man whose parents were abducted by Vivarius, has been sold into indentured service and has found himself the subject of thaumaturgy, with a new clockwork heart. Along with his partner Gaius, he’s looking for revolution, but his anxiety and trauma factor large. I liked seeing Julius’s gradual change. I was frustrated with him as a character in some ways at first, but as I read, I think this was in fact a decent portrayal of PTSD. They meet up with some other, dynamic main characters who have been wronged, and they band together.

There are issues aplenty here. Immigration, migration, colonisation, slavery, wage inequality, end-stage capitalism, labour organising…And the parallels to modern society were striking. Fascism is on the rise today, and I couldn’t help but superimpose some of today’s political figures onto the novel’s characters. I’m not going to name names, but it was pretty obvious.

Each of the issues wasn’t explored in depth, but the point that all of these societal issues overlap is clear, and fixing them takes incremental action on many fronts. It’s something else I liked about this book: the messiness. Johnson gets that societal injustice is messy, as is the road forward. There were shades of moral greyness in the book, which elevated the story. It made me think of how the ends might justify the means, or the merits of attempting change from within to fight corruption, versus fomenting anarchy. I liked the way that Johnson chose to pause in the narrative near the end of the book, stepping back to highlight brief vignettes of how rebellion can take root ever-so-slowly in a society that knows things are corrupt and unjust. It was hopeful, and ultimately answered the book’s question. Yes, one person can make a difference, and collective action builds towards change.

I adore blockbuster best-sellers and prize-winning masterpieces, but finding a decent, local indie-published book by a new author whose debut novel is this inventive is heartening and wonderful. Johnson has published short stories, and is a video game designer. I hope he continues to hone his craft and gives us more novels. I wouldn’t be averse to more stories from this universe! The Clockwork Empire is available on Amazon, as so many indie novels are.