Book Review: Ticker by Lisa Mantchev
Penny Farthing, member of the wealthy elite, is full of tons of energy she mostly uses to ride her motorized high wheel bicycle and collect robotic butterflies. Unfortunately, her clockwork heart doesn’t always entirely keep up with her. Plus she has to wind it. Much more troubling to her, though, is the fact that the creator of her clockwork heart, Calvin Warwick, is now on trial for murdering dozens of people he abducted from the street to practice on before giving her her new heart. When there is an explosion at her family’s factory and Warwick escapes prison immediately after being found guilty of murder (oh, and her parents disappear), Penny and her twin brother and two of their closest friends embark on a journey of intrigue to bring her parents home and Warwick to justice.
I rarely am actually interested in anything in the Kindle First email (a once-monthly email that informs Kindle owners as to four books they can access ahead of publication for free). I am also not often into most steampunk books. It’s an idea I love, but I often find isn’t executed as well as it should be. When this one popped up, though, I was intrigued for its transhumanist explorations. The book definitely explores the concept of transhumanism via the steampunk idea of augmentation, but it mostly is a story about a young girl’s first love and a bit of a mystery/thriller search for a murderer.
The basic premise that a teenager finds out that the medical device that saved her life was the result of the brutal torture and murder of dozens of people is awesome. This is a more extreme version of the types of realizations that young adults often have. (For instance, I will never forget the first time I realized that sometimes scientists must experiment on innocent animals in the pursuit of cures and the ethical quandary that resulted for me). It works quite well because it is set in an alternate universe. This allows the reader to have some distance to view the ethical issue through but the alternate universe is still similar enough to our own that it is relatable. Penny is always firmly against any unwilling human experimentation (as she should be) but she is left wondering how much responsibility and guilt she should feel for the tortures and murders when she herself was indirectly responsible. She is so grateful to be not only alive but able to function better than she could before. But she is also traumatized at the thought of how she got there. This is the book’s real strength, and I am glad it is out there for the YA audience to read. That said, there are other elements of the book that just don’t quite work for me.
First, the level of steampunk is sometimes a bit ridiculous and isn’t explained well enough. For instance, the world seems to have only robotic butterflies and horses. Why is that? For that matter, it’s deeply confusing to me why this culture would develop a robotic horse and carriage, particularly when they also have motorized bicycles (I won’t call them motorcycles, because they definitely are not nearly so eloquent nor sexy as motorcycles). It’s not a far leap to car from there. The reasons behind the steampunk features are simply never explored. They just are. This may be fine to some readers, but I found it dissatisfying. I particularly really needed to know why the animals are robots.
Second, the society Penny lives in is clearly meant to be a parallel to the British Empire in its heyday. It is highly stratified, classist, regal, and feels oppressive (except for Penny and her family of course *eye-roll*). I have no problem with a book containing this type of society but it is not only never questioned it seems to be held up as an excellent way of living. It’s great that the military just jumps right on in and solves everyone’s problems (including abducting civilians up to their sky fort). It’s oh so wonderful that Penny’s family has all this wealth. It’s tragic for Penny’s family that they lose some product in the factory explosion but the workers and their injuries and lives are barely touched upon. It ends up feeling like whenever any of the elite people in the book (and most of the main and secondary characters are elite, with the exception of one young girl who is saved from her poor destitute life by the military) discusses anything bad about being the lower class, they do so in a “See, I’m a good person because I care about them” tone but not out of any sincerity. None of them have any desire to actually change or fix anything. Indeed, one of the main characters excitedly jumps right in when they are asked to become an honorary member of the military. The book has the tone that the only thing wrong with this alternate universe is the fact that Warwick is a very bad man who experiments on people he snatched from the street. Everything else is fine! When it clearly is not.
Finally, I just don’t particularly care for the main character, Penny Farthing. First there’s her name, which is exactly the same as the name of the style of bicycle she rides (only motorized) (info on the penny farthing). That’s just a bit too cutesy for me. Second, she is a person who is oblivious to her privilege of wealth and access to medical care, even when it is smacking her in the face. She never learns, changes, or grows (beyond falling in love). She briefly realizes “hey, maybe things have been rough on my twin brother too,” but she glosses over that quite quickly. She also eats incessantly in a way that reminds me very much of The Gilmore Girls (here is a great article that talks about why this trope is annoying as hell). Basically, she eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants, primarily junk food, and everyone finds it “oh so adorable” that she is constantly hungry. Oh that Penny Farthing! And she does this all while staying the classic western media ideal of what is attractive! Without working out! So basically she never does that annoying thing women can sometimes do which is to eat a salad and never eat a burger because she’s watching her figure (which men find annoying) but she also is definitely not fat (which men also find annoying). She is the best of both worlds. In Penny’s case, this mystery is explained as the fact that she needs to eat to keep her clockwork heart going. The “science” of that drives me absolutely batty, by the way. My best guess is that the author was possibly going for the idea of how some people, such as people with diabetes, need to eat at evenly spaced times to keep their blood sugar even. However, no one would tell a person with diabetes to eat primarily sugary baked goods at those intervals, which is what Penny mostly eats. Also, diabetes does not equal heart disease so…..the “science” of this makes very little sense. It reads as an excuse to use the Gilmore Girls junk food trope. Finally, it really bothers me that she collects the robotic butterflies. Yes, I know people do this in the real world with real butterflies, but it has always struck me as cruel, and I think it says a lot about her character that she seems so cool with trapping what in her world are perceived of as essentially living creatures for her own amusement and collection.
All of that said, the plot and mystery of Warwick, his escape, and finding Penny’s parents is fast-paced and unpredictable without ever verging into the land of plots that make no sense. It’s an interesting world with an engaging plot built around a cool premise. Where it is weak is primarily in the elements that were either not sufficiently well thought-out, explored, or explained, such as the robotic animals, the functioning of Penny’s heart, etc…
Overall, this has an interesting premise and an engaging plot. It unfortunately doesn’t explore the workings of the society or the steampunk it has created enough, and the main character can be a bit annoying and hard to root for at times. However, those who love steampunk with a dash of mystery and romance will likely enjoy adding it to their repertoire, provided they are ok with the issues outlined above.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Amazon Kindle First (Free copy of the book provided by Amazon to those with kindles who request it. Requesters are under no obligation to provide a review).