The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

Automata and missing children…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Paris, 1750. Madeleine is desperate to escape from the brothel that her mother runs, so when one of the brothel’s clients, a policeman, offers her money to take a position as a maid in the house of Doctor Reinhart in order to spy on him, she accepts. Doctor Reinhart is an automaton maker, already famed for his life-like creations of birds and animals which he animates using clockwork. Madeleine is not told the reason the police are interested in the doctor; she is merely instructed to report on any suspicious activities. When she arrives at the doctor’s house she meets Véronique, the doctor’s young daughter, just returned from her education in a convent and now keen to follow her father’s footsteps and become an automaton maker too. Soon Madeleine becomes convinced that the doctor is indeed involved in a secret project, but despite her best efforts and the pressure being applied on her, she can’t find out exactly what. Meantime Paris is in an uproar over the disappearances of several children. At first the missing children came from amongst the many homeless waifs living on the streets, but now the children of tradesmen are disappearing too and rumours are flying as to who is taking the children and why…

I don’t want to say much more about the plot than that, because the interest of the book comes from the slow revelations that finally allow Madeleine and the reader to know what is going on. To be honest, I worked out parts of the mystery fairly early on, but it didn’t matter because the story is much more about the characters and how they are impacted by the events in the book. The historical setting of Paris in the reign of Louis XV is wonderfully portrayed – I’m no expert on the period so can’t speak to its authenticity, but I found it totally convincing. Mazzola takes us into the poorest and darkest corners of the city and to the dazzling court of the king, and shows us the huge inequities that only a few decades later would lead to bloody revolution.

The story is told from the perspective of three different women, though all in third party. Madeleine is the main character, and she’s very well drawn. We learn about her terrible but sadly not unusual experiences as a child forced into prostitution, though it’s made even harder by the fact that it’s her mother who did the forcing. But Madeleine is strong, determined not just to make a better life for herself but also for her young nephew Émile, who is a sickly child and an orphan, his mother, Madeleine’s sister, having died not long before the book begins. Madeleine is also unusual in that she has some basic education given to her by her father before he died. It is Madeleine’s ability to read and write that makes her useful to the police as a spy.

Véronique is the second perspective. Since part of the mystery revolves around her, we don’t get to know her quite as well as Madeleine until late on in the book. However, she too has had a difficult childhood and is now looking to forge a life and career for herself in a society that restricts opportunities for women of her class to little more than marriage or the convent.

The third perspective is a woman that we initially know as Jeanne but soon discover is in fact Madame de Pompadour. Through her we learn about the life of being the officially recognised mistress of the King, considerably more luxurious than Madeleine’s life in a brothel, but perhaps no more secure. Jeanne’s position is entirely dependent on Louis’ favour, and she knows that there are many who would happily see her fall from grace or take her place. Through her, too, we get to see the power struggles at court, with everyone jostling for the king’s patronage, and all completely uninterested in the poverty and growing anger of the Parisian poor on their doorstep.

Mazzola touches on many issues – women’s lowly status and lack of agency, slavery, prostitution, poverty, and so on. But in every case she shows us these things through the characters’ lives and actions – she doesn’t preach and she doesn’t get polemical. Hallelujah! Her characters are firmly rooted in their own time, and haven’t miraculously acquired twenty-first century attitudes and sensibilities.

Anna Mazzola

The story itself is wonderfully creepy, with Mazzola making great use of the settings and the doctor’s automata to create an atmosphere of mild Gothic horror. Apparently it’s inspired by a real scandal of children going missing in Paris at this time and some of the rumours that flew around, although Mazzola has created her own story from this base. There are hints at the supernatural, at the old story of science being allowed to run beyond control, at the lengths that obsessions will take people to and the lines that they will cross in pursuit of knowledge. And the resolution of the story is both dark and satisfying.

An excellent book – great setting, well-drawn interesting characters, and a story that intrigues and chills and takes us to the edge of the supernatural, but ultimately stays on the right side of credible. Loved it – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Orion, via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

60 thoughts on “The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola

    • Really loved this one, even more than the previous one of her that I’ve read. The setting’s great and I loved Madeline – she’s a really enjoyable character to spend time with!

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  1. This does sound deliciously creepy, FictionFan! And it sounds as though the characters are well developed, which I’d think is probably really important for this sort of story. It’s an interesting time of history, too, so if that’s captured well, I can see how that would appeal, too. Yes, this is definitely tempting, curse you! 😉 😉

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    • She’s great at doing the Gothic atmosphere but without taking it too far – it’s nicely creepy along the way but in the end it all feels quite credible. And the characters are very good, especially Madeleine and Madame de Pompadour, but there are lots of secondary characters who’re well-drawn too, all with differing levels of mysteriousness about them. Haha, well, it’s time I paid you back… 😉

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  2. I loved this too – I noticed you were reading it and had my fingers crossed for a five star review from you! I thought the setting was wonderfully atmospheric and I really liked the way the story touches on the supernatural without going too far in that direction.

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    • It’s so good when both the setting and the characters are equally well-drawn, and I particularly loved Madeleine – she felt very real and true to the time. This is the second of her books I’ve read and enjoyed them both, though this one considerably more than the other. She’s now going to be a fixture on my watch-list! 😀

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  3. This sounds very good; from what little I knew of it I had the impression it was historical fiction but didnt know about the creepy, gothic element. The three perspectives from different social levels, and especially Madame de Pompadour sound especially intriguing.

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    • I know almost nothing about French history before the Revolution (and not much afterwards!) but she really got me interested and made it feel totally convincing. Hurrah – hope you get to it sometime and enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

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    • I’m finding I’m enjoying historical fiction more and more – it seems to be having something of a Golden Age at the moment. And this is up there with the best! Hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime! 😀

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    • Hurrah! This is only the second of her books I’ve read and only the third she’s written, and it seems to me she’s going from strength to strength. Hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime! ;d

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    • Hurrah! This one really is well worth reading – both the mystery and the mild creepiness are great, as are the three main characters, especially Madeleine! Hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime! 😀

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    • The creepiness is very mild – I’m not a fan of real horror either and it was fine for me. But the setting and characters are far more important than the creepiness! Hope you enjoy it if you get to it sometime. 😀

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    • I hadn’t read anything from this period either and found that very refreshing after so much Tudor fiction! I was laughing at myself though. I was reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame at the same time – same place, 3 centuries apart – and kept getting them confused. Kept waiting for Quasimodo to show up in this and Madame de Pompadour in The Hunchback… 😉

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    • I read an earlier book by her, The Story Keeper, set in Skye, which I also enjoyed but with some reservations. This one felt like a real step up, as if she’s really got into her stride now – this is her third book, I believe. I’m looking forward to seeing where she takes us in the future! Hope you enjoy it – I’m nearly certain you will. 😀

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  4. This sounds fantastic – in fact, though I rarely buy books off the back of a single review, I bought the kindle version the minute I got to the bottom of your post! I’m glad the author didn’t try to shoehorn in 21st century values, which always hinders my suspension of disbelief.

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    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I’m glad to say that the other people who’ve read it seem to think just as highly of it as I did, so hopefully you will too! Yes, I hate when the characters in historical fiction have anachronistic attitudes – it throws me right out of the story.

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  5. I quite literally JUST commented on your last post how excited I was about this book – and now I’m mad at myself for passing it up! It sounds fabulous, and now you’ve got me in the mood for some historical fiction…

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