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Tuesday, November 14, 2023

SPFBO 9 Finalist Review: The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen

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AUTHOR INFO: Jacquelyn Hagen is the author of the epic fantasy series "The Riverfall Chronicles". She currently resides wherever the U.S. Air Force needs her to be. In her free time, she devours stories in every form (usually while hanging out with her two big fluffy dogs), but has also been known to play in folk bands, raise chickens, and try to improve her bread-baking skills.

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Publisher: Jacquelyn Hagen (September 9, 2022) Page Count: 440 (Kindle edition) Cover art: Miblart



The Wickwire Watch is truly unlike anything I have ever read, yet it also gave me all the warm fuzzy nostalgic feels for some of my childhood faves. What starts out as a murder mystery in a Victorian-esque high fantasy world quickly morphs into a character-driven cosy fantasy with steampunk aesthetics and delightful found family vibes, only to take a shocking dip into the horror and psychological thriller sphere. And believe me, the author pulls it all off magnificently.

May I introduce you to Inkwell Featherfield, a plucky and sharp-witted young thief who trusts absolutely no one. His pickpocketing skills tend to help him survive on the streets, but the mysterious watch he snatched out of a dead man’s house has brought more trouble than he could ever have imagined. He quickly finds himself entangled in a web of dark secrets and deadly conspiracies, but luckily for him a group of eccentric and enigmatic fugitives sweep in to whisk him off to safety. With his worldviews shattered, Ink has to decide if he will finally let his walls down and maybe even trust his mystifying benefactors, or else he might not make it out of this mess alive.

First up, don’t let yourself be put off by the idea of a young main character. Ink is a child protagonist done absolutely right and I adored exploring this wondrous world through his eyes. He is convinced the world is out to get him, which explains why he acts all tough and allows no one to come close to him. Though, it doesn’t take long to realise that he is really just a very lonely and scared young kiddo who secretly wants nothing more than to find a safe haven.

And a safe haven he is granted, just not in a way he could ever have predicted.

Now, I have always said that I am a fan of the found family trope, but this book just single-handedly raised the bar for every other found family dynamic yet to come.
This entire cast is made up of rich, vibrant and slightly oddball characters who all absolutely steal the show. There is a very warm and cheery vibe to them and the Victorian-esque sensibilities resulted in some hysterical character interactions, so it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with them all. And yet, there’s also a quiet sense of tragedy that haunts all of these characters and it’s hard not to let Ink’s wariness rub off on you, which added a lot of depth and intrigue to the story.

The middle of this book turns into a bit of a slice-of-life cosy fantasy section in a magical isolated setting where we really get to dive deep into what makes these characters tick, which was just pure magic for me as a character-driven reader. The troubled personal journeys, traumatic backstories, and complex character dynamics that we get to explore had me glued to the page, and I loved slowly peeling back the layers of all these characters.

Speaking of peeling back layers, the world-building here is just excellently done. The author does a brilliant job of establishing a world that feels real and lived-in, while also leaving enough open for your own imagination to run wild.

Ink is not the only perspective we follow and I thought it was so much fun to explore this world from some very different points of view. The author skillfully plays around with themes of prejudice and misinformation, which resulted in some very surprising revelations and unexpected character dynamics/arcs.

The sense of atmosphere is also simply unmatched and the prose is utterly entrancing, so I felt like I wasn’t merely observing these events, but actually living them myself. There’s just this Gaiman-esque air of eccentricity permeating every single aspect of this story, which made this one of the most whimsical, unpredictable, and magical reading experiences I have had in a long while.

Overall, I am honestly blown away by the insane quality of this debut novel and I already have a feeling that this is going to become a new all-time favourite series. These characters have wormed their way into my heart and I desperately need to know how their stories continue, especially after all the crazy revelations and implications at the end.

Also, if you get the chance to listen to the audiobook, I highly recommend you do so because the narration is simply phenomenal.

The Wickwire Watch is bold, brilliant, and slightly bizarre, and I truly can’t recommend it highly enough!


I love how varied the SPFBO 9 finalists are this year. "The Wickwire Watch" worthily represents the gaslamp fantasy subgenre. It’s adventurous and surprising. It’s about Inkwell Featherfield, a boy who finds himself targeted by dark spirits. His safety depends on a group of wanted fugitives on the run. Which makes everything fun.

Inkwell is bold, curious, and distrusting. He’s also a skilled pickpocket. I enjoyed how he was introduced - with a touch of humor and great timing. His unique mannerisms make him memorable and interesting. His backstory, or rather, flashes of his backstory are revealed slowly and build interest in Inkwell’s past.

Isaac Caradoc, the leading member of the fugitive group, possesses a mark on his left hand that grants him power over the spirits. He’s mysterious and no one (neither Inkwell nor readers) really understands his motives.

There’s also Lady Seherene who is leading the hunt for the fugitives. She’s clever and tired of political games but must play them to progress. 

I liked the plotting, the characters, and Hagen’s atmospheric writing. It’s fun to see characters doing stuff in a rainy, pre-dawn town with gas lanterns casting pale light on cobblestones. Hagen pays attention to sensory details (“damp, metallic smell”) and it adds depth to the setting.

Effective plot twists kept me eager to know more about the unfolding events. I won’t reveal any of them, of course :)

On the flip side, the book suffers from information overload - some chapters introduce a lot of information, all important to the intrigue, sure, but there are lots of them to assimilate. Also, the first half of the book is slow, perhaps too slow to capture some readers' attention.

At times I felt transitions between scenes could be smoother which would improve the flow of the story. Also, despite the twists being clever, the recurring theme of hidden identities and subsequent revelations is somewhat predictable, especially if you’re well-versed in the genre.

That said, the characters are well-rounded and memorable, and the intrigue kept me immersed in the story. It’s a good, engaging book. 





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