I recieved Curio from NetGalley and while I was excited to read it (because it looked cool), I spent quite a lot of time struggling to find an app that could actually open it. That’s the trouble with a Windows RT tablet… there’s no Adobe Digital Editions, and for reasons unbeknownst to me the publishers decided to make it available only as a protected PDF and not as a Kindle edition. Why? Who knows. It was infuriating.
BUT. I got there eventually.
Isn’t that cover gorgeous?
ANYWAY. This book could best be described as steampunk, but there are also alternate worlds. Well, one alternate world. And that’s steampunk too! So in the main world, the ‘real’ world, we have three main groups. The Chemists are sinister magical folks, whose power lies in chemia (aka magic) and generally run the show. The normal folks suffer from a starvation disease which means they have to drink a potion, known as the ration, each day to be able to digest food (can there be one of those for coeliac?).
Then there are the Defenders, supposedly extinct, but actually alive and well. Our protagonist, Grey, belongs to that group.
Then there’s the other world, which Grey ends up trapped in by accident. It exists within a curio cabinet, and its occupants belong to two main groups. The porcies, or porcelain people, are delicate and beautiful and, frankly, self-obsessed. They’re water-powered, with pumps inside. It’s quite a complicated operation. The tocks, on the other hand, are clockwork or mechanical people.
Trapped in a world where nobody needs to eat is a bit of a problem for Grey, but thankfully the Mad Tock — Blaise — is not actually a tock at all and eventually rescues her and they’re massively attracted to each other and so on and so forth.
This was a very brief summary of the main worldbuilding: as you can see, it’s a pretty complex affair. I love interesting worldbuilding (I’m writing this review just a couple of days after my review of An Ember In The Ashes, though it won’t be published for a while yet), and this was satisfying on that front…
… except that I found it a bit hard to follow in places. I appreciate the lack of info-dumping and I also believe there is a prequel novella somewhere in existence. I don’t think any book should require a prequel novella to explain what’s going on, but it would probably resolve the sense of being dumped in the middle of a world with problems I don’t understand.
The nature of the ration and the starvation disease isn’t explained for quite some time, which was one of the main ways in which I was muddled. Because the worlds are so different to ours, it was easy to find myself focusing so much on the detail of that and as a result, losing track of the plot.
Some important details — like why there were such strict rules about reproduction and that sort of thing — were never fully explained, and I have to admit, some parts of the world were frustratingly heteronormative. Oh no, you’re not allowed to touch people of the opposite sex, what a tragedy. (Queer laughter in the distance…)
But Grey was an interesting protagonist. She had a lot of inner strength and, while there was romance, it was largely relegated to the background and didn’t play a major part in the story. She was supported by a cast of many interesting characters, from her best friend Whit to Blaise, the Mad Tock himself. The narrative swaps around to different characters, so it was lucky I liked them all, or I might have got bored.
In places I would be like, “Oh, why are we going back to Whit? I don’t care what he’s doing, I’m more interested in Grey.” But then by the time we switched back to Grey, I was caught up in Whit’s narrative and thoroughly invested in him. So it worked out quite well.
On the whole, I found it an enjoyable book, but the immersive nature of the worldbuilding was slightly undermined by the confusion I felt for most of the early chapters. It was hard to see the significance in Grey not needing to swallow the ration every day when I still didn’t understand what the ration was actually for, you know?
Worldbuilding can often prompt me to give books more stars than they would otherwise deserve, and that may be the case here. It’s probably a 3.5 star book for plot, but a 4.5 star book for worldbuilding, and somewhere in between for characters… which means it’s getting four stars. I hope that seems fair enough.