We don’t feature a lot of genre fiction here on Fourth & Sycamore, but when an author comes along who does something special we take notice. Beth Cato, author of The Clockwork Dagger and its sequel The Clockwork Crown (available this month), is one of those authors. Her steamfunk fantasy fiction features strong female characters who are more than just Strong Female Characters, a focus on healing-as-power rather than violence-as-power (though there is plenty of action in her stories), representation of persons of color and persons with disabilities, and a strong environmentalist theme throughout, and she achieves this without feeling like she’s championing causes at the expense of narrative.
We had the privilege of interview Beth after the release of The Clockwork Dagger back in November, and we’ve caught up with her again just as The Clockwork Crown is hitting shelves. Beth has chosen an excerpt from the beginning of Crown to share with you today, and she’s also answered a few question from us after the excerpt. Enjoy!
As she rode through the snowy wilderness of far southern Caskentia, Octavia Leander’s spirits were buoyed by three thoughts: that although she fled from assassination and capture, she was undoubtedly in one of the most beautiful places she had ever seen; that thus far they had survived a full week without any sign of pursuit by horse or buzzer; and that her companion in the hard journey was Alonzo Garret, a man who had forfeited his career as a Clockwork Dagger–and possibly his life–in order to keep her alive.
Considering the dire circumstances, he made for delightful company.
Alonzo rode ahead on a chestnut bay stallion, their gray pack horse following close behind. This far from civilization, the world was utterly quiet but for the jingling of tack, the horses’ breathing and the steady rhythm of their hooves, and the radiant life songs of the horses, Alonzo, and any wildlife within close range. In particular, she took comfort in the ever-present marching band brasses of Alonzo’s life essence; she would recognize his particular notes in any crowd.
Since childhood, she had known people’s and animals’ health woes by their music, but only in a generic sense. She didn’t hear specifics unless they had an open wound or she placed the patient in a circle to ask for the Lady’s direct intervention.
The Lady’s Tree moored its roots to the very spirit of the earth. Through the Tree, Octavia could heal with prowess beyond any other known medician. Lately, however, the Lady’s magic had changed. Octavia had changed. Her power through the Lady had increased, and Octavia wasn’t sure if it was truly for the better.
As if he sensed her attention, Alonzo glanced back. A Waster’s fur-fringed hood framed his face and contrasted with the warm nutmeg tone of his skin. A coarse black beard lined his jaw. His song was ragged in weariness, his heart steady in its anxiety. His mechanical leg–though masterfully designed–could not help but grind the joint against his flesh below his knee. She had treated him with pampria and heskool root over the past few days to ward against infection. His leg pained him again now, but even so, his smile to her was tender. Heat bloomed in her own chest, along with a sense of terrible sadness.
She had told Alonzo that she wanted to search the famed libraries of the southern nations to find out where the Lady’s Tree may be found. Alonzo knew that Octavia sought a greater understanding of her own magic through the Lady, but he didn’t know of all the ways that her power was changing. Or how it terrified her.
How had Octavia’s blood, combined with a true branch from the Lady’s Tree, caused a massive tree to grow temporarily? That tree had acted in her defense and torn apart the men of the Waste who had tried to hold her captive. The branch that had done that was now tied to her saddlebag. It was green as if freshly cut, and hummed with life like any person or animal.
Then there had been the moment after she had pulled Alonzo from the edge of death. She had kissed him, and with the touch of her lips she had gone beyond her knowledge of his body’s song. It was as if she had become immersed in his very soul, that she could pry apart his body’s instruments and manipulate his health without any restrictions from the Lady’s herbs.
That had frightened her even more than the persistent threats of both Caskentia and the Waste.
A flock of birds fluttered overhead, anxiety driving them as if they were pursued. Octavia craned around. The sky was a blanket of gray, the wind sharpened by early winter.
“What’s the matter?” called Alonzo.
“Something alarmed the birds.”
“To the trees, quickly.”
Their horses pounded down the hill, the action reverberating through her constantly-aching leg muscles. Thin snow sloshed underfoot. The forest welcomed them with a slap of branches and a shower of pine needles and ice. Roads had been scarce, signs of humanity scarcer. A good thing, in truth, though the long days of slow progress had permanently imprinted the saddle’s curve into her backside.
“We should be nearing the Caskentian border. ‘Tis a likely place for patrols to be wary for us.” Alonzo reined up.
Octavia listened past the songs of wildlife around her. “I hear a buzzer.” That’s what I get for counting my blessings. I jinxed us.
“Yes. He is likely flying amongst the low clouds. Our tracks are bold on the snow.” Alonzo pressed his horse onward, staying in the trees. She followed, brush scraping her legs. Trees crowded close.
Because of the unusual strength of Octavia’s skills, the settlers of the rogue territory known as the Waste had sought to capture her and use her against Caskentia. The Caskentian royal court, true to form, caught wind of this plot and thought the tidiest solution was Octavia’s death.
Beth Cato: The main story about Octavia is resolved at the end of The Clockwork Crown but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete THE END. I have a new deal with Harper Voyager Impulse to release ebooks within the same world. The first of those is already out for sale–a short story called “The Deepest Poison.” I’ll have a novella out later this year and another short story next April. Beyond that… who knows? I love Octavia, Alonzo, Leaf, and everyone else, and I’m open to writing more tales.
F&S: In addition to your novels you publish a lot of short fiction online. Where can our readers find your writing on the internet?
Beth: I maintain a full bibliography at BethCato.com. Many of my stories and poems can be read for free; some are even available in podcast form. I write a pretty wide variety of science fiction and fantasy, and I’ve also had nonfiction in over a dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
F&S: Do you have your next book after The Clockwork Crown planned, and can we know anything about it?
Beth: I actually started on a new steampunk series about two years ago and completed the first book before I even had a deal finalized for The Clockwork Dagger. That book has been waiting in the wings since then. I hope to be able to talk more about it soon! It drives me crazy that I can’t say more.
F&S: Thanks, Beth!
The Clockwork Dagger is available now at Greenville Public Library. The Clockwork Crown will be available from GPL later this month. As always, a hold can be placed on either book if it is already checked out.