Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The world ended not with a bang, but with a whimper as the Earth slowly lost the ability to sustain life. Humanity was ultimately saved by a clocksmith known only as Y when he laid out a plan to overlay the planet with a complicated system of gears to recreate its life-sustaining abilities. Now a thousand years beyond that, sinister forces are gathering to remake the world in their preferred image. The plot is discovered by a sixteen-year-old genius clocksmith, Marie Bell Breguet, but she won't be able to stop them alone. Could a perfectly ordinary boy with extraordinary hearing and a tsundere automaton be humanity's last hope?
Falling somewhere between steampunk and straight science fiction, Clockwork Planet's inaugural novel introduces a quartet of not-quite-heroes who are a blend of tropes and fun. Co-written by the author of No Game, No Life and one of his former assistants, the story follows sixteen-year-old Naoto, a clockwork-obsessed high school student with extraordinary hearing, the highly advanced (but of antique make) automaton RyuZU, another sixteen-year-old, the French Canadian genius Marie, and Marie's bodyguard as they take on a currently faceless organization trying to destroy the world…by becoming terrorists. It's an odd set up to be sure, and some of the pseudo-science is a little hard to swallow, but it's enough of a mix of characters and genres that it works more than it fails.
After a prologue that takes place a month after the events of the main story (indicating that things will move quickly; the whole novel happens over the course of a day and a half), we are introduced to our two sets of protagonists. In a fairly risky move, the Naoto/RyuZU group and the Marie/Halter group, don't actually meet up until halfway through the book; in fact, we barely know that they're going to be able to work together until they are. Partly this stems from the fact that they're operating in two totally different spheres – Marie has been brought in to repair a major problem with the clockworks that are keeping the city of Kyoto functional while Naoto is an orphan living in a crummy apartment and attending high school. Both are obsessed with the basic functionality of clockwork, but what really brings them together is RyuZU.
Drawing from the origins of automatons, the first successful humanoid version is largely believed to be Jacques de Vaucanson's The Flute Player in 1737, RyuZU is a human-shaped robot powered entirely by clockwork. Unlike most robotic people, however, who must follow the widely accepted Laws of Robotics coined by Isaac Asimov, RyuZU has her own free will, which allows her to essentially be a human with clockworks instead of veins and organs. This implies a much more literal interpretation of the Greek roots of the word “automaton,” which means “acting of one's own will.” In RyuZU's case, this isn't just about moving; she's also able to truly think for herself. Given that she is equipped with some deadly weaponry, that's an unsettling thought for Marie and Halter when they find out, although at this point Naoto seems fine with it. More to the point, RyuZU was made by Y, the man who came up with the plan to save humanity by covering the earth with a complex system of cogs and gears, and as such she is incredibly valuable. Previously she was owned by Marie's family, the Breugets, but an error during transit from Canada to Japan caused her to be dropped on Naoto's apartment building, rendering him homeless. Fortunately he is able to use his sensitive hearing to discover the gear preventing RyuZU from functioning; unfortunately for Marie, this means that as far as RyuZU is concerned, she's staying with Naoto forever.
It is in trying to get the automaton back while simultaneously attempting to figure out how to stop the unscrupulous forces trying to destroy Kyoto that the two groups meet up, and it is RyuZU who essentially brokers their alliance. This helps to make her a less abrasive character than she might otherwise be, giving her a much more altruistic side than we've otherwise seen. Largely she comes off as somewhat irritating because she is the most stock character of everyone in the book. Yes, Marie fits a lot of “girl genius” parameters while Halter is a pretty basic “older bodyguard” type and Naoto is the “unremarkable but amazing” hero. But all of them have enough elements to their personalities that offset those basics, such as Marie's ability to buckle down and be good at her job with little reminding or Naoto's dissatisfaction with hearing so sensitive that he's never had a truly quiet moment in his life. But RyuZU is not just tsundere, she's Tsundere – very nearly all of her interactions with people are based on the limitations of the character type. By this point, a girl who accuses a boy of being a pervert for virtually no reason, who aggressively stakes her claim on him, and who every so often does something sweet that proves that she really does care feels very stale, and while parts of it can find additional validity in the fact that she's an automaton who has registered Naoto as her master/owner, it still forms more of a detraction to the plot than not.
This is what makes it so fortunate that the story itself is interesting. By the end of the first novel, we still don't know why these events are being staged or for that matter who is staging them. We have a few ideas, but given that the book opens with a similar attack being planned on Tokyo, it seems clear that the few names that have been named are not the key conspirators. Marie's plan to stop them is audacious to say the least, and that bodes well for the unfurling plot, as does the fact that the group is already fairly cohesive, with respect for each other's strengths, at least among the humans. While this doesn't strictly feel like a book-length prologue, it does seem to be setting up for a much larger story.
Seven Seas' physical release of J-Novel Club's ebook is very nice, light enough to make for easy reading with good sized print and with a spine that doesn't break or crease easily. All of the color images from the e-release are included, and Sino's black-and-white illustrations look good. There are a few oddities in the text itself, such as a use of commas instead of hyphens to denote stuttering in a couple of places and a few sections of character thoughts that aren't italicized, which makes it look like the book has randomly acquired a first-person narrator. On the whole, however, the translation reads well.
Clockwork Planet's reputation may have taken a hit after its sub-par anime release, but this first novel shows that the story itself has a lot of promise. With its blend of science fiction and steampunk and characters who are a bit more than they at first appear, this is an interesting read, even if neither of those genres are what you're usually into.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Naoto and Marie surpass their initial stereotypes, interesting world and premise
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