The Clockwork Three is one of the best middle grade children’s books I’ve read in a long time. It’s charming, the characters are genuine and realistic, the prose is poetic and creatively descriptive, and the plotting is tight without seeming unlikely.
The story takes place in a steampunk version of New York City (although it’s never named as such) in the late 18th century, and involves three kids whose stories intersect and overlap:
Giuseppe is an “employee” of a low level thug who provides minimal food and shelter for street urchins in exchange for all their money earned playing instruments on the streets; he’s effectively a slave. When a magical green violin washes up on shore, the music that Giuseppe pulls from it literally stops listeners in their tracks, and he earns more money in one song than he does in a week with his old violin. He quickly realizes it’s his ticket out, back to Italy where his family is from. But his patrone discovers the new violin and Giuseppe barely escapes with his life. Now he’s on the run from ruffians, but unable to get out of the city or buy a boat fare home.
Hannah is a school age bookworm, but she must work to provide for her family ever since her stonemason father’s stroke left him bedridden. A maid at a grand hotel, she overhears her devious superiors plotting to find a treasure that a mysterious resident supposedly hid somewhere in the building years ago. She intends to find it first, to pay for the medicine that will save her father. But when Hannah’s desperation leads her to steal a valuable necklace from a hotel guest, she gets fired–and the prospects for her family are grim.
Frederick is an orphan and apprentice clockmaker. He dreams of making journeyman in the artisan guild, and all his extra time is focused on building a complex clockwork automaton. Yet as new details emerge about the mother who abandoned him to the orphanage, he begins to break under all the pressures. When a friend leads him to a discovery of momentous historical significance, he steals a valuable item and barely escapes with his life. Now Frederick is in over his head, and can’t bring himself to trust his master, the clockmaker, with the truth.
Matthew Kirby takes all three of these story lines and weaves them into a beautiful tapestry of adventure, friendship, innocent romance, and gentle social commentary. It’s even grounded in some true events from 1873 New York City. There’s a little bit of the supernatural–hence the steampunk feel that makes it not quite historical fiction–but it feels realistic. The colorful and descriptive prose just rolls off the page; I found myself re-reading certain sentences with delight.