I’m always on the lookout for queer YA, so I jumped at the chance to read Timekeeper, a novel set in a steampunk-esque Victorian London that stars two queer male leads. Timekeeper starts in media res and launches you right into the story, and I quickly fell in love with its concept of mechanics who can control time. However, as the book continued, I became disappointed with said concept just as quickly.
Spoilers for all of Timekeeper below!
In the world of Timekeeper, magic is formed around a presumably-true myth about four gods. The god of time, Aetas, sent his magic throughout the oceans until they reached mortals who were able to feel it. These mortals became the mechanics of the novel. Mechanics work on clock towers, like London’s famous Big Ben, and through repairing these towers, they can fix the very flow of time. For example, if a clock loses its hour numbers, those hours just disappear from the days of the inhabitants of that town—instead of being three o’clock, it’s suddenly four o’clock, and so on. If a clock goes too fast, time in the town also goes too fast. And if a clock stops working entirely, its town is Stopped, and its inhabitants will relive the same seconds over and over until the clock works again.
Our protagonist, Daniel Hart, knows all too well what happens when a clock Stops. His father, a mechanic, was working on the clock tower in the town of Maldon when, for some reason, it Stopped, and the town and Christopher Hart were frozen in time. Try as Danny and others might, there’s some sort of time bubble over the town that prevents anyone from entering. Danny reluctantly continues his own career as a mechanic to earn money for himself and his mother, and when the story begins, Danny’s been assigned to the clock tower in Enfield. It’s Danny’s first assignment since his father’s accident, and he’s worried he’ll fuck it up. The apprentice assigned to help him isn’t particularly useful either—he never seems to talk and he doesn’t seem to know anything about clock repair. Danny’s frustrations, however, only last until he finds out that the apprentice isn’t an apprentice at all—he’s a clock spirit.
It takes Danny a while to believe that clock spirits actually exist. Though they are in the tales of Aetas, he’s always figured that they were only superstitions, because he doesn’t believe that there are spirits in the towers he fixes.The clock spirit is male-presenting and tells Danny his name is Colton, and Danny basically thinks he’s a person for the first couple chapters. However, Danny realizes that as he repairs the small cracks in the clock’s surface, small scars disappear from Colton’s face, proving their connection. Danny finds more and more excuses to visit Enfield, ostensibly “fixing” the clock but really just spending time with Colton. As the two of them get to know each other, Danny tells Colton about his father and Colton tells Danny about how lonely it is to be confined to a tower, and they slowly fall in love.
However, not everything is hunky-dory for Danny and Colton from then on out. When Colton’s emotions are high, time in Enfield runs weirdly, slow and then fast and sometimes skipping minutes and hours altogether. In one particularly amorous encounter with Danny, Colton fast-forwards the town from morning to evening and then back, leaving Danny to awkwardly tell the townsfolk that he “accidentally” messed up the pendulum. And as the story continues, Danny finds out that his mentor Matthias fell in love with the clock spirit of Maldon, a female-presenting spirit named Evaline, who loved Matthias so much that she took the central gear of her tower and walked herself straight out of her tower to be with him. This Stopped her clock and the inhabitants of her town, including Danny’s father, forever.
Thus we get to the greatest strength of this book: it creates a conflict between two queer male leads that is based on magic rather than on homophobia. While homophobia does exist in this version of England, it’s a little like that of present-day America: there are people who are homophobic, but gay marriage and gay rights are law. The reason Danny and Colton can’t be together is that if they’re together, if they make the wrong decisions like Matthias and Evaline, time could be ruined for themselves and all the inhabitants of Enfield. No misguided, bigoted force is making Danny and Colton separate aside from their own morals. It’s extremely compelling, and because the worldbuilding has been so excellent, we know the real weight of the problem with which Danny is struggling.
And then Timekeeper does something horrible. At the end of the book, Danny goes right back to Enfield and tells Colton he’s going to be Enfield’s mechanic for the foreseeable future. It’s as if Timekeeper took all of its great worldbuilding and, in its rush to give its audience a neat and happy ending, dunked that worldbuilding straight into the trash. What happened to the foil of Matthias and Evaline? Does Danny just think that he’ll never be so foolish? Do Danny and Colton plan to never do anything emotional or physical together? Will Danny really be happy in the small town of Enfield forever, and what will Colton do if Danny leaves?
This basically negates Timekeeper’s greatest strength by forcing the characters into a clichéd, out-of-character conclusion. But this isn’t the book’s only problem along these lines. Author Tara Sim has built a world with its own religion, myths, and culture, and magic is thus woven into each issue with which the characters are dealing. The only female mechanic we meet, a Daphne Richards, is half-Indian and is pushing for greater recognition of Indian clock magic; nothing further happens with this Indian clock magic, and Daphne doesn’t get to do much of anything aside from being tricked by Matthias. Colton is lonely, and at the end of the book, the inhabitants of Enfield realize that he exists, but this doesn’t seem to help his mental state at all and none of them are seen hanging out with Colton, despite how fascinating talking to a clock spirit must be. Most importantly, the reason that so many things have been going wrong with Colton’s clock is that Colton has been doing it to his own clock in order to get a mechanic, preferably Danny, to pay attention to him. Since cracks and other damages to the clock face appear on Colton’s physical form until they are fixed, this is basically Colton self-harming in a bid for attention. Danny tells him to stop, but somehow this behavior is even seen as kind of cute by the end of the story.
Timekeeper is the first in a confirmed trilogy, so it’s even more surprising that Sim wouldn’t utilize the end of her book to further her worldbuilding and raise questions for later installments. Sure, maybe it’s because Danny is a teenager that he’s sure everything will work out, but if so, there are no hints at a potential future internal conflict. Evaline takes herself and her central gear back to Maldon, the town is un-Stopped, and Christopher Hart and the other inhabitants are released. Danny’s family is back together and happier than ever, and Danny has presumably taken up residence in Enfield. Timekeeper is built on a unique, creative concept, but the latter half of the book and the conclusion waste all the potential of that concept. Hopefully in the next two books, the author will be able to take the implications of her great worldbuilding and explore their logical conclusions.