The fourth and final instalment of the Steampunk Chronicles, The Girl with the Windup Heart, interweaves two storylines: Finley’s quest to rescue Griffin from a mysterious dimension accessible only to those who have recently died, and the determination of Mila, an ex-automaton, to discover what it means to be a human. The primary antagonist of the preceding novels also returns, despite having been killed in the previous book.
From the third chapter onwards, I was already far more captivated by the plot revolving around Mila, even though Cross clearly intended both to be equally intriguing. Perhaps the drawn-out, blatantly obvious passages from Finley’s point of view were too tiresome, with clichéd declarations such as: “She was not going to cry, no matter how much her eyes burned… Griffin didn’t need her tears, he needed her help. So, no – she was not going to throw herself on the bed they shared, bury her face in his pillow and sob herself dry. She would not bawl and snot and pray for him to return to her.” In primary school, we were always encouraged to show, not tell. And although I am often frustrated by an uncompromising adherence to this ‘rule’, which can lead to pretentious and irritatingly vague prose, this was certainly a case of excessive telling. The characters’ slews of rhetorical questions from their shock at their own emotions (yet the reader remains unmoved, since the romantic developments are completely predictable) only added to the melodrama.
Another reason for the uncharacteristically less-than-riveting storyline may be because this time, the antagonist’s actions were driven simply by a sadistic desire to torture, rather than any meticulously planned attempts to rule Victorian England. Consequently, there was a yawning absence of the usual element of mystery. In the previous books, the characters – and the reader – had to slowly piece together the ingenious schemes of the antagonist before it was too late, but this novel left no room for puzzles or plot twists. Even the final showdown with a new enemy felt empty and anticlimactic because it was solved in – quite literally – an instant, thanks to one character’s supernatural abilities.
Nonetheless, Cross did attempt to address the timeless construct of ‘humanity’ through the development and internal dilemmas of Mila, drawing parallels between her and Pinocchio. As she struggled to grasp the unfairness of the patriarchal society and the concept of propriety, the reader was able to explore the wonders and flaws of human beings from a fresh perspective. Additionally, ardent fans of Finley and Griffin will not be disappointed. But I must admit that Cross’ habit of splitting all of her main characters into neat pairs continues to irk me, maybe because it seems to suggest that happiness can only be found by people in romantic relationships. Or maybe the complete absence of any single characters was just too blindingly unrealistic.
Favourite quote: “Is that what’s got you in such a state? The fact that you were never a baby? You just skipped a very messy step on the evolutionary ladder, I reckon.”
Photograph by Christy Lau.