I am usually not drawn to books by their cover (at least, that is what I like to believe), but the cover image of The Cogsmith’s Daughter, the debut novel of author Kate M. Colby, aroused my curiosity from the first time she revealed it on her blog. It stayed with me throughout the reading of the book, and I could understand why this mechanical, toy frog served as the narrative’s mascot, its most representative symbol – it does not serve only as an important plot device, an almost alive object in the protagonist’s attachment to it. It serves as a reminder of love, righteousness, loyalty even to those long dead and self-belief in a world that renews itself continually on the basis of corruption, manipulation, artifice, deception and a set of values that do not extend further than greed and self-preservation. Even as you get further and further enwrapped in such a world, this tiny, sentimental object can appear to be more human and full of integrity than all the real humans around it.
There are other such surprises in Colby’s novel. The Cogsmith’s Daughter is the first in her Desertera series, Desertera being the post-apocalyptic world in which we find the characters. A world that is highly segregated among the descendants of survivors who had travelled in a steamship – around which the civilization has built itself following drought. Colby effectively highlights the ridiculousness of such ancient, classist arrangements which should be redundant in a world where resources are so few. You can almost hear the caricaturish demeanour of King Archon, the lord and the Word of this place, as if he were straight out of Blackadder or any such satire on royalty. However, Colby successfully manages to give multiple dimensions to all her characters, whether it be the scheming Lord Varick, career woman Madame Huxley, or even the charming love interest Willem. While I applaud Colby for her deft treatment in making each of these characters complex, some unlikeable ones even sympathetic, I am most grateful to her for the titular cogsmith’s daughter – Aya Cogsmith.
Do not doubt my support for the cause of gender equality when I say – I am tired of badass heroines. They are everywhere. Even the latest Star Wars movie had a central heroine living in a world somewhat similar to Desertera, who can fight skilfully, operate any spaceship or gadget, all because she is the daughter of a Jedi, where even other Jedis had to undergo massive physical and spiritual training to let ‘the force’ truly be with them. Aya Cogsmith, on the other hand, has few resources, and all believable ones. After witnessing her only surviving parent, the lone cogsmith in all of Desertera, being sentenced to execution for not being able to mend the prince’s toy, Aya enters the sex trade at age thirteen, there being no other options for an orphaned girl. She spends years working, without ever mastering the art of seduction. Even the rudimentary knowledge she received in cogsmithing from her father offers little scope in her life. Despite being an unassuming, even a timid young woman from the time we meet her, the opportunity for vengeance motivates Aya to take up a life-threatening task – seduce the king to adultery, and thereby bring his downfall.
Hypocrisies abound in this made-up world, as the brothel caters to a noble, mostly married clientèle, where the law equates adultery with the death penalty. However, Aya must seduce as a noble herself, where the instigator of her vengeance, Lord Varick, takes her in as his ward to avenge the death of his own daughter, the former queen who was executed for adultery. The contrast between the three instances of seduction – Aya’s inexpert handling of a boorish client at the brothel, her mannered, careful seduction of the king, and her falling in love with the young nobleman Willem – show that it is not simply a tale of a young woman using the oldest trick in the book, or her skill with the oldest profession known to man, but that of a woman’s desire, her agency over her own body and emotions, her need to perform a careful balance between necessity and true longing, so as not to lose herself in the ways of the world, even as she finds herself, and arrives at a place where she knows who she is, even if that is not what everyone around her would like her to be. Aya Cogsmith is throughout a believable, relatable, multi-dimensional, admirable character, and we need more heroines like her.
The writing is clear, unaffected and gently paced. I am again grateful for the lack of gratuitous violence – there are executions without any guillotines in sight, self-defence makeshift weapons without bloodshed. Character motivations are front and centre, and that is intrigue enough to keep you glued to the story. With The Cogsmith’s Daughter, Colby has created a unique book in its genre (and it has elements of multiple genres besides dystopian fiction) and has a lot to offer, not only as a reading experience, but also to current trends in writing fiction.
Visit Kate M. Colby’s website for more information – https://katemcolby.com/