Book Review: Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson

Who tends the garden — control freak or anarchist?

long-time fan of the progressive rock band Rush, I was excited when I heard that the group’s new release, Clockwork Angels (2012), would be a concept album. Then came word that fantasy and science-fiction author Kevin J. Anderson was writing a novel based on the album’s lyrics, which spin a steampunk odyssey conceived by Rush lyricist and drummer Neil Peart. I pre-ordered a copy and, when it arrived, quickly read it from cover to cover.

Image: Goodreads

Clockwork Angels: The Novel (2012), tells the story of Owen Hardy, an apprentice apple farmer in the land of Albion. A ruler called the Watchmaker organizes every aspect of life in Albion with mechanical order and regularity, so that each citizen need merely follow the path that he provides. This is the Stability, according to which “Everything has its place, and every place has its thing.” Owen Hardy fully expects to settle into his predetermined course, but he also dreams of life outside his village, and upon an invitation from a mysterious stranger, he runs away, runs afoul of the Watchmaker’s law, and travels to other lands, encountering carnies, thieves, wreckers and the Watchmaker’s antithesis, the Anarchist.

Anderson’s prose is uninspired but possesses a simple elegance perfect for a story that is essentially one long parable. He puts just the right amount of flesh on the album’s lyrics to highlight the concept of free will steering a course between Order and Chaos. Summaries of the novel make it sound like the typical Bildungsroman of which the fantasy genre has way too many, but despite my low tolerance for dreamy-boy-goes-out-into-a-world-of-adventure stories, this one never struck me as cliché and I was never bored.

In part, Peart’s conceptual work is to thank for that. As I read, I caught myself thinking more than once that I was grateful that a musician (and a drummer, no less), rather than a novelist, had created this story and its setting. Rush’s music and Peart’s lyrics have always had their own distinct style, and that comes across in the novel. Fans of the music will recognize the philosophical motifs Peart has woven into Rush’s lyrics over the years — and many of those lyrics are sprinkled throughout the text. (On first reading, I caught quotes from as far back as 1975’s Fly by Night.)

I can’t help but relate the novel to my other recent reading. The Watchmaker’s Stability can be described as a “totally administered society,” a phrase I ran across in Critical Theory: A Very Short Introduction (2011) by Stephen Eric Bronner. The Frankfurt School of philosophers believed that in a totally administered society, whether that of Stalinist Russia or capitalist America, there is little room for true individuality. The totally administered society has ways of keeping us in our place.

The Anarchist of Clockwork Angels represents the exact opposite — total lawlessness — although with his wild appetite for destruction, he’s more of a nihilist of the negative sort portrayed in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (1872). While he possesses a certain evil charm at first, in the end he’s no more likeable than Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky, the slimy catalyst for ill deeds in The Possessed. In their crusade against the strictures of society, both are perfectly willing to destroy lives, but they have nothing positive to offer in place of what they tear down.

The beauty of Clockwork Angels is that Owen Hardy chooses neither the Watchmaker nor the Anarchist. In the words of the old Rush song “Freewill,” he chooses not to decide. He chooses to make his own way through life, with all the uncertainty, mistakes, suffering and joy that such a messy pilgrim’s progress entails. Owen’s life with the Magnusson Carnival Extravaganza is one apart from the ideologies of the Watchmaker and Anarchist, who would impose themselves upon him and use him for their own purposes.

Even apart from the story, the novel is full of perks for the bibliophile. It has numerous full-color illustrations by long-time Rush album artist Hugh Syme, and they are among the most impressive I have encountered since I was in the sixth grade poring over the illustrations by the Brothers Hildebrandt in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. The back of the book includes the lyrics to Clockwork Angels: The Album and an afterword by Neil Peart, with photos from a hiking trip on which he and Anderson, friends even before this collaboration, brainstormed for the novel.

I’ve actually never been much of a fan of Kevin J. Anderson, but this book has made me reconsider. On his website, AnderZone, he says that Neil Peart’s favorite work of his is The Saga of Seven Suns series, so I have placed the first book, Hidden Empire, on my Long List of Books to Read.

Originally published at on September 22, 2012. Kevin J. Anderson’s official website is no longer AnderZone. It is now WordFire.

I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.