I’ve only ever read a handful of books that treat the question of religion in fantasy with any serious weight. The presence or absence of gods and their powers, the (un)knowability of divine things, the question of whether or not one can get, or understand, an answer from a god—the question of whether, if you’ve given your fealty to a god, it matters if you understand the use said god makes of you—is not a question that fantasy in general deals with in great detail, even—or perhaps especially—in those works that take the existence of gods for granted.
Until now, my short list has generally included Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods works (The Curse of Chalion, Penric’s Demon) and not much else. But now I find—in the middle of a grimly humorous story that reminds me of nothing so much as a really fucked up Forbidden Realms adventuring party—that T. Kingfisher (otherwise known as Ursula Vernon) has a revelatory scene in her The Wonder Engine, second and final book in the Clocktaur War duology.
The Wonder Engine follows on from Clockwork Boys, where we first met the forger Slate, the assassin Brenner, and the demon-haunted paladin Caliban—as well as their clerical companion, adolescent savant Learned Edmund—and learned that they’re a last, probably doomed, attempt to save their city. They’ve been sentenced to death, and if they don’t stop the invading Clockwork Boys—living, almost indestructible automatons, sent out by neighbouring Anuket City—their death sentence will be carried out, thanks to the cursed tattoo each of them unwillingly received. But, unfortunately, though they’ve managed to reach Anuket City, their mission is still dangerously likely to kill them before the curse has a chance.
Especially since Slate has history in Anuket City, the kind of history that would quite like to torture her to death, and neither Brenner nor Caliban trust each other—in part because they’re both attracted to Slate, but mostly because one’s a smart-mouthed assassin and the other is a sometimes-painfully literal paladin with a talent for saying exactly the wrong thing.
It’s around paladin Caliban that the religious questions of The Wonder Engine coalesce. Caliban is, by his own lights, a failed paladin: possessed by a demon, he slaughtered a dozen people, and though he was rid of the demon in the end, its rotting corpse is decaying down the back of his soul. He hasn’t felt the presence of his god since the demonic possession, and he feels himself to be abandoned. Probably unworthy.
In The Wonder Engine, Caliban has not one but two encounters with divinity, the first with a goddess, the second with his god. Neither are explicable. Neither of them resolve anything: when Caliban feels the presence of the god he pledged himself to once again, he doesn’t feel grateful. He feels angry: why wait until now? Why let him despair?
The problem with gods is that authentic religious experiences don’t tend to come with answers to these sorts of questions: all you have is feeling and faith. And your personal decisions as to what to do with it. (I speak as an agnostic/atheist who’s had a couple of very religious experiences, before I decided that religion and I had to part ways.) Kingfisher gets to the bleeding, beating heart of this—and does it in a book that’s about so much more.
The Wonder Engine is a grimly funny adventure story that also manages to be compassionate and pragmatic. And it manages to say more about religious experience and faith in a chapter than most books do in a treatise.
I really love it. Read it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.