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Dark Harlequin: The Clockwork Ninja

Being a steampunk fanatic, anything with “clockwork” in the title automatically piques my interest. The book’s cover illustration of a colorful harlequin-like character added to my fascination. Clockwork Ninja turned out not to be steampunk, but rather an imaginative urban fantasy set mostly in my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

Full disclosure: I know the author, having worked with him on a theater project here in Phoenix. He’s also an accomplished artist; Arlys and I hired him to do the chapter illustrations for our first Ione D novel. This presents the dilemma: should I review a friend’s book? To be frank, I won’t review a book by a friend if it’s awful, though I’ll certainly offer constructive criticism if necessary.

The hero of and titular Harlequin of Clockwork Ninja is Terrencio Gulini, a skilled Italian toymaker in love with the daughter of a local nobleman. To impress her father, he builds a life-sized clockwork harlequin doll. Before he can deliver it, some mysterious men break in and attack him. As he lays dying, the men use magic to affix his soul to the doll. The reason they do so is not explained; I assume they want the animated doll for some nefarious purpose. Somehow he escapes them and lives on as an immortal who makes it his mission to avenge all those souls who have been wronged – sort of a magical superhero.

That’s the flashback, however. The story opens as the Terrencio awakens in a box in an antique shop. Although he doesn’t sleep as humans do, his soul can go on hiatus (a kind of astral travel?) for years at a time. He sneaks out of the box and breaks out of the shop, but not before falling madly for its attractive female proprietor. Terrencio discovers he’s now in Phoenix and that over forty years have passed since he’s last been awake.

Terrencio (a.k.a. “Terry”) calls his human friends in Chicago, who have been keeping his harlequin body safe and awaiting the return of his soul. The friends send Joe, a young family member Terry has never met, to retrieve him. They’d been searching frantically for Terry since his harlequin body was stolen. Terry wants to find out how and why, and also aims to meet the enchanting young lady from the shop. At the shop, Terry purchases an ancient knife which turns out to a powerful magical artifact. He finds himself facing both the ruthless antique thieves who stole him and an ancient sorcerer who wants the knife. Luckily, Terry’s three centuries of existence have given him plenty of time to acquire ninja skills and weapons.

Thus it begins, leading to plenty of witty dialog and humor, magic, romance, and sword fights. There’s also a lot of local color for both Phoenix and Chicago. It’s definitely a mature book with a lot of sexual banter, both straight and gay. My only complaint is that it’s too wordy at times, with too much description and introspection slowing down the action. In particular, the introductory monologue, in which Terry tells his story in first person, is too long and gives too much away. Because I prefer to discover a character’s back-story through the narrative, I’d recommend skipping it and going straight to the action. You can always refer back to it if you get confused, but I think the action explains it pretty well.

Urban fantasy fans will enjoy Clockwork Ninja. Due to its sexual content, I recommend it for relatively mature (at least teenage) audiences. As a first effort from an independent author, it’s quite impressive. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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