Nov 1, 2014: Twisted Cogs is an alternate universe fantasy inspired by the art culture and societies of 16th century Italy during the Renaissance. It tells the story of a girl named Elena who comes from a family best described as big fishes in a very small pond. As she seeks an apprenticeship from a renowned artisan, she discovers how complicated the world beyond the countryside really is—and the reader discovers alongside her.
The world of Twisted Cogs features supernaturally-gifted people known as "Stormtouched." What is most interesting about them to me is that the story focuses on Stormtouched as artisans, engineers, craftsfolk, rather than chiefly as fighters like the magic users of other fantasy settings tend to be viewed. It is a unique look into an art world where talent is seen as even more predetermined than normal—while in our world we already buy heavily into facile, essentialist narratives of organic talent, in their world it is simply a fact that a Fabera, who fixes things, is lower on the rung than a Machinator, who engineers paranormal gadgets.
When I began reading I would have described the beginning as "slow-paced" but in reality the plot advances at a leisurely rate and after a while you get used to it. Explanations of the world happen organically, and its events unfold before the reader as they do for Elena. Though there are a few things Elena already knows that the reader doesn’t, and she is just prompted to explain them when required.
I had it in mind to review since I started reading, but I continued to search for an "event" where the story would "touch off," and shoot at me like a rocket, but that was an erroneous expectation. Really the story is more about moments than it is about sizable and flashy events. It is about social exploration: day to day struggles and interactions.
It is simply but competently told, as far as the writing. At times I found myself wanting a bit more detail in places, because when the prose thickens it does so well and really paints a nice picture when it wants to, but most of the time the prose moves along at a decent clip. The dialog is competent and people feel and talk like people. It is very character-driven moreso than it is about complicated and grandiose plots (so far).
While there are mysteries and rumblings they are deftly intertwined into Elena’s daily struggles as she tries to realize her place in a world quickly expanding beyond the confines that she was once used to. She is pretty entertaining to read about and I love rooting for her and watching her "lesser" power grow. My interest in her and where her journey will take her is my primary motivator for continuing to read the story.
For an artist there is a lot of relatable emotion in the story—the rural traveler in the big city, the conflict inherent in a hierarchy of talents, the underdog whose art is unappreciated. Quite a few times I found myself relating heavily to Elena as someone whose abilities are overlooked and downplayed—she is a perfect underdog in this magical art world.
One thing I would suggest is the creation of a glossary of setting terms. I’m a forgetful sort with an irregular reading schedule so I found myself reaching back to earlier chapters to recall what set apart a Fabera or Artifex or Machinator from each other. There’s also a few characters whose speaking accents are spelled out in the dialog—it’s a personal peeve but that kind of writing annoys me a bit. No harm done though.
Set your expectations properly, and if you’re a fan of more down-to-earth period fantasy then this story might intrigue you. If the characters hook you, keep reading; but don’t expect a big bang that suddenly creates a new universe outside the little world of the garzoni from one chapter to the next. I’m going to keep reading, perhaps still in anticipation of an "event," but also because it’s just entertaining and intriguing.