The Clockwork Dragon by James Hannibal: Telepathy, trials, and dragons (clockwork and otherwise)
3rd book in the Section Thirteen series
See also The Lost Property Office, The Fourth Ruby
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): less
Age level: 10 and up
With the looming threat of being put on trial as a shunned “Section Thirteen” tracker in the British Ministry of Trackers, Jack Buckles is in danger of his life. Not only that, but his father remains in a mysterious coma after being captured by the evil Clockmaker, and Jack himself is having trouble dealing with his newfound magical abilities. Opposing him is the sinister Ignatius Gall, leader of the Ministry of Secrets, and Jack’s only hope for survival is to prove that Gall himself is a traitor within the Ministry—the mastermind behind the nefarious plots of both the Clockmaker and the villainous Edward Tanner.
Accompanied by his friend Gwen and sister Sadie, Jack must search for clues scattered across the globe in hopes of incriminating Gall. The journey leads him locations from Switzerland to China, meeting new allies (such as Liu Fai, a Chinese boy wielding ice magic) and showing readers new aspects of author James Hannibal’s imaginative worldbuilding, from dragons to steampunk-esque transportation systems.
The plot of this book is rather straightforward in principle (Jack and his friends must find evidence to prove that Ignatius Gall is a traitor) but the details admittedly do get unexpectedly complex along the way—the plot certainly isn’t boring, but one might not guess from the beginning of the book that the climax (or first climax, since there are really two) would take place in the trap-filled tomb of an ancient Chinese emperor! Similarly, a major plot point is Gall’s strange experiments in immortality and the transfer of consciousness between bodies, which might also be a bit unexpected. However, most of these are hinted at in the two previous books, and I personally didn’t find the plot of this one confusing—just know that it may not go where you expect it to. Hannibal also brings about a nicely satisfying ending (which I won’t spoil), but suffice it to say that the story ends well, and I was very happy with how all the various plot threads of the trilogy were tied up. The only point on which I have any real criticism is Hannibal’s “double-climax” structure in which the protagonists fight Gall twice in relatively short succession and defeat him both times. This felt like it lowered the stakes for the second fight, since they’d beaten him once before, but on the whole, this is really a rather minor criticism. (9/10)
As in The Fourth Ruby, the cast of main characters remains mostly the same from previous books: Jack, Gwen, and Sadie. However, as before, Hannibal also introduces multiple new characters—Ignatius Gall (who appeared previously, but plays a major part for the first time in this book) and Liu Fai, an ice-wielding Chinese boy magician with an unfortunate backstory. True to form, Hannibal also keeps his inter-character relationships interesting by introducing Will, who rivals Jack for Gwen’s affections (this is only a minor plot arc, though). The characterization in this book is excellent and very much on-par with the previous books, and Hannibal does an excellent job of working in individual quirks and speech patterns for each person in the story. Overall, The Clockwork Dragon’s characters are well-written and merit a 9/0 rating.
Much like the previous two books, The Clockwork Dragon’s style is readable and not overly complicated to understand. While the plot may be slightly confusing at times due to its mystery-type elements, it remains engaging and should not prove a problem for most readers. The only real consideration here, as with the rest of the trilogy, is the book’s length: 422 pages in my edition, which is a bit longer than many books written for a similar age range. (3/10)
Quality of writing
As mentioned before, Hannibal excels at presenting engaging and realistic characters: all of his characters have their own unique speech patterns, habits, and quirks, making them genuinely fun to read about. His dialogue is also remarkably on-point, often humorous, and always interesting; I’ve never found it difficult to remain engaged while reading any of his books. Furthermore, another of Hannibal’s particular strengths is his worldbuilding. While the world in which the Section Thirteen books are set may seem similar to the real world at first glance, a closer look reveals many fascinating fictional elements of Hannibal’s own creation—dragons, mind-reading, magic, secret ministries operating within the British government (and further secret societies inside those), and more. Hannibal has a knack for blending multiple fantastic elements and genres (everything from high-fantasy-type magic to steampunk-esque technology) and moreover, making it all seem like it actually goes together. In all, Hannibal’s writing is excellent and merits a 9/10 rating.
The Clockwork Dragon is perhaps most comparable to The Fourth Ruby in terms of concerning content—at least one character dies (during the collapse of a cave), although the incident isn’t depicted in over-much detail. There is no concerning language or sexual content (Jack and Gwen hold hands, but they don’t even admit that they might be boyfriend and girlfriend, although other characters occasionally tease them about it.) As far as “scary” content goes, the book does depict a tomb full of traps, an evil clockwork dragon, and malevolent telepathy, but it’s not overly graphic and should really not prove much of a problem for most.
Based on this book’s length, style, and level of concerning content, I recommend it for readers ten and up. However, readers younger than this may also enjoy it equally well—I just recommend that parents and readers exercise their own good judgement in deciding such a question.