SPFBO 9 Finalist Review: The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen

SPFBO 9: The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen

Welcome to the Final stage of SPFBO 9! As you know, the 10 blogs all picked their champion who advanced into the finals, including ourselves. Check out our SPFBO 9 page for more info! SPFBO 9 ends on April 30th, and so we’ll post our finalist reviews every two weeks or so until then.

Our 4th SPFBO 9 finalist review is for The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen. The order of the reviews within a post will be in alphabetical order.

A quick reminder about how we are proceeding in the Finals: our judges had the freedom to opt out of reading any of the books due to personal interest, time restrictions, unforeseen life events, etc. Our aim is to have at least 4 reviews/scores for each finalist.

Both in the Semi-Final and Final stages we’ll have a DNF rule in place: if a judge reads a book (either semi-finalist or finalist if they didn’t opt out beforehand), they have to read at least 25% of it. If they decide to DNF between 25%-50% they’ll have to give a score but can opt out of writing a review, and if they DNF after 50% (or not) then also have to score AND write a review.

For The Wickwire Watch we have 6 reviews and 6 scores for your reading pleasures.

So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 4th finalist!

Table of Contents

About the Book
Series:The Riverfall Chronicles #1
Genre:Fantasy, Mystery,
Publisher:self-published
Date of Publishing:September 9, 2022
Book Blurb
The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen

TRUST NO ONE.

It’s the first and greatest rule Inkwell Featherfield ever learned. It’s also the only way he knows how to survive—besides picking pockets, dodging the law, and using every ounce of his plucky charm. But none of this will be enough to save him now.

If only he’d never snooped around a dead man’s house. If only he’d never found that pocket watch full of strange magic. If only he’d known the old man had snuffed it at the hands of the ghostly Spektors, or that such dark spirits even existed, because now they’re after him.

When Ink is approached by an enigmatic group offering to keep him safe, he accepts—only to discover his rescuers are a band of infamous fugitives. Who knew they had a flair for winemaking? Or a penchant for sing-a-longs?

Thrust into a world of arcane horrors, powerful politicians, and dangers on every side, the boy has no choice but to finally break his rule and decide who to trust. But with all the secrets, magic, and mystery thickening around him—and the stakes so much higher than he ever imagined—it might just be downright impossible.

Review

Bjørn

Read: 100%

Sometimes, a book is just not for me. I avoid bloodbaths, graphic sex scenes, especially gratuitous violence against women, etc. The Wickwire Watch is, unfortunately, a book for me, and yes, I just said ‘unfortunately.’

I love a good first sentence. “Had Mr. Bash known this was the night he was going to die, he would have stayed at home” is there with the best. Mr. Bash, full same.

John Spindler, a journalist in search for a story, finds out about the death, and naturally runs over to investigate the events. With a local Constable, they discover a boy named, gorgeously, Inkwell (Ink) Featherfield. Ink’s voice is a bit… confusing. Sometimes it’s “suffering humiliation with all the dignity I can muster, sir,” then – “don’t got no magic powers or anything,” or “younger’n ma father.” If there is a point to Ink’s voice changing from nobility to vaguely literate, I am missing it.

I was pleased to see the author elegantly avoid an infodump in the beginning: “You know their crimes. You know their punishment. I will not repeat it here.” I hate the scenes in which, after the first two sentences, the speaker proceeds to list all the crimes and punishments as known by everybody. I set my hopes too high.

The first 20% or so of The Wickwire Watch is exciting. Things keep happening. Characters get introduced at just the right pace. Suddenly, the author grabs the remote and switches to Gardening and Wine with Your New Friends. Ink is now being introduced to people and places, giving the impression that the author loves her world so much we will now find out everything about it, which we do. A conversation follows about topics those people must have discussed a hundred times. Reader, the infodump was not avoided. It would feel very Agatha Christie, actually, a cosy whodunnit, had it not been for the first 20% being a completely different genre.

Lots of things in The Wickwire Watch happen conveniently, I mean, coincidentally. People happen to be exactly where they need to be for the plot reasons. Things that have never ever happened, like, ever, happen now, and I don’t mean bad things. The watch keeps disappearing, showing up after I (and Ink) have forgotten about it. Spindler slowly gets relocated from a secondary protagonist role, to guest appearances, to sending letters read by somebody else.

It’s really the watch that confuses me the most. I mean, it’s in the title. Ink finds it inside a “small, run-down shack.” This watch is apparently so special, that all sorts of beings, natural and supernatural, desire it. They should have looked for a small, run-down shack. Ink carries the watch with him at all times, except when he doesn’t. Weird things keep happening to Ink, beings that never paid much attention to anyone else flocking towards him. “Is there anything special you can think of?” is asked multiple times. I found myself saying “it’s the watch,” then “IT’S THE WATCH,” then trying not to yell at the book. Called The Wickwire Watch.

As I said, I am this book’s audience. I like the genres squeezed into it. Separately. It’s difficult to forgive the pacing changes this abrupt, but the village and its characters are enjoyable, even though some of them are more fleshed out than the others. (I love the sisters!) I couldn’t overlook the weaknesses, though, because they kept frustrating me. And the book stopped. It doesn’t have an ending. There is no cliffhanger. The Wickwire Watch stops with a link to buy the second instalment. It’s not heavy-handed. It’s not handed at all.

I am genuinely sad to say this, but with a thorough development edit (I checked, and the book had an editor), less deus ex machina and more (or none) of the actual watch, the book could have been very good. Parts of it are. But it’s not a tapestry. It’s a patchwork.

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Jen

Read: 100%

The Wickwire Watch left me feeling a little divided in my thoughts.  One part of me really enjoyed aspects of the story. It’s a gaslamp fantasy which I like, and the opening chapters had me just totally engrossed. I blazed through the first 15% of this book in no time at all – my curiosity captured by the story’s characters, and by the peek at a world.

 I hate to say it but the middle was a bit draggy for me. There were things I enjoyed – just learning about how they were surviving on their isolated piece of land, and the friendships between the people hiding out there. And Ink fitting in while trying not to fit in. There was this whole kind of slice-of-life vibe here for a good long chunk of the book.

And then there was the last 20% of The Wickwire Watch which took a wild U-turn back to that strong, OMG! I can’t put this down kind of feel the start of the book had for me.

So, you can see my quandary because all the different parts of this story were good in their own ways. But they felt like different parts of two books and I think that’s where I had a small issue with the story as a whole.

I do like slice of life/cozy fantasy for the most part. I think it just really threw me off, after the opening which didn’t feel like a slice of life at all, but more like the beginnings of a nice politically bent adventure kind of story.

 Other Thoughts

I liked the subtle humour, once you get to know the characters some of their replies are pretty funny.

I also liked Inkwell Featherfield. He’s a character that has an air of a mystery about him. He’s young, and comes across as trying to be tough – the push everyone away type but is a good kid underneath. The kind you want to hug that crusty-layer off and show him he is loved.

And Some Spoilery Thoughts

There were a lot of things and information to do with Ink and/or the Watch, that I personally felt could have been fed along sooner, without wrecking any surprises along the way. Withholding for so long the simple things about his parents and especially the watch- after opening it once to not immediately want to go reopen it, when there is no serious threat other than chores – just frustrated me to no end.

A lot of stuff to do with the conflict between the Entrians and Colonists remains unclear as to whose side is really the bad side and whose side isn’t, and I liked that about it because right and wrong aren’t always clear in these sorts of situations. Especially when both sides have reasons to be angry towards one another.

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Liis

Read: 100%

Did I love it? No.

Did I hate it? Also no.

It’s simply one of these cases where the book and the reader simply did not click. And so it fell safely in the middle.

Where I struggled to appreciate the gaslamp/steampunk atmosphere, others have praised it. Where I failed to feel excitement, others did. It’s such an odd thing for me with this book – technically, I can’t tell you what could have been different to make it better, but from this one average reader perspective, the start-middle-ending parts felt disconnected in terms of tone and pacing. It was like mix and match of 3 different parts. One part could have thrived with more focus and another part could have worked better with 50% word and description cut. The first 20% felt like what the book set out to deliver. The gloomy atmosphere, the mystery. Then we meet Ink and the happenings with him open up new big questions. The centre part of the book was a lull in terms of pace and events. Don’t get me wrong, this community life is #lifegoals but I don’t think they did any favours for this story. The last part cranked up the speed again and a lot happened. It got the excitement levels up. But when the last page was read, I had still so many questions that I probably should not spell out due to spoilers. In other words, personally, I was left frustrated more than satisfied. But, as I said, this is but my personal explanation as to why I didn’t click with the book, to explain my rating; and a quick look around the webs tells me I sit firmly in the minority.

The difficult part over with, I would like to end on a high note.

The Wickwire Watch truly has one of the most intriguing opening sentences. It transports the reader straight away and sets the expectation. The cover of the book gives us an idea that there will be some mystery and at the centre of this mystery is probably a lovely looking watch. The blurb catches the eye when it says: trust no one. The book delivered on the ’trust no one’ part because I think the play on how propaganda is used, how powers that be can mistreat their power or duty to do right, is a nice little stab. It’s very current. In fact, it’s always current when the reader is in any way politically inclined and up to speed with current events no matter where in the world. The Wickwire Watch unravels like a steady drumbeat. The writing is solid and inoffensive and it delivers a story of mystery and plentiful fantasy elements.

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Olivia

Read: 44%

The Wickwire Watch is one of those novels that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The first few chapters do give off a gaslamp fantasy vibe, with just a dash of horror—but the book then changes gears entirely, in order to become a… cosy fantasy? In consequence of which, I find myself uncertain just who I should recommend the novel to.

On the bright side, the first chapters of this book are excellently written! The prose is perfectly readable, with the occasional artistic flair, and the tension had me quickly turning pages. The main character, Ink, was an interesting choice with a strong narrative voice—a paranoid, streetwise child with a hint of a conscience.

Unfortunately, the initial burst of narrative tension quickly peters out in perplexing ways. As soon as Ink finds himself in a hidden village, all sense of danger and driving purpose quickly goes out the window. Instead the reader is introduced, scene by scene, to each and every member of the magical village, each of whom feels more or less interchangeable with the others. It was immediately clear with each of these scenes that several of these villagers would have no impact on the plot and were in fact likely to just… disappear back into the background as soon as the camera shifted away from them. 

Which brings up the question: What were these scenes for? The author goes out of her way, very early on, to make it clear that the villagers are misunderstood rather than dangerous; though Ink is suspicious by his very nature, the reader has long since moved on and stopped being worried for him. By the time I gave up at 44%, a very large chunk of the story had been dedicated solely to reinforcing this point. The initial plot about ghosts, saboteurs, and strange artefacts has been entirely left in the dust. There is the repetitive reminder that Ink has questions he would really like answered—questions that the reader no doubt shares—but every villager declines to answer those questions, which only reinforces the fact that nothing of plot relevance is going to happen until every single introduction has first been laboriously finished. When the same questions end up repeated every scene, only to be deferred once again, that should generally be a clue that something is very wrong with the story’s dramatic tension.

I was genuinely riveted by the first few chapters of this book, and intrigued by its strange worldbuilding. I can’t say that I know what happened to change this novel into an entirely different one later on—but I’d be very interested to see an entire book written with the style and tension of the opening.

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Paul

Read: 100%

For me, The Wickwire Watch started well with a lot of mystery, hints at dark elements, and a palpable sense of tension. The MC Ink seems a cheeky, roguish, Artful Dodger kind of character, but the secondary character Spindler is older and more grounded, giving me the impression that it wouldn’t be a mainly YA experience.

After the first 10%, which included a gruesome murder, frantic chase, a mysterious artefact and terrifying spectral beings, the wheels completely fell off.

It’s a totally different book from around 10% to 80%. The mystery is suffocated by downright obfuscation from the characters, and any tension evaporates as the plot turns into a tremendous slog, having Ink trundle from character to character on a walking tour of his new home and, once the cast has been introduced this way, spends a few hundred pages doing menial jobs and alternating between paranoid snark-monster and cheesily cheeky chappie. For me, this middle section was far, far too slow and destroyed all of the engagement built up in the opening chapters.

Then, we hit 80%, and it’s back to the highs of the first few chapters, along with some welcome answers. Unfortunately for me, I don’t feel that the eventual payoff completely offsets the glacial middle section, which ultimately really soured my experience.

This one definitely wasn’t for me, and while I imagine with all of the explanation out of the way, the next book would be far more consistent in terms of action and pacing, it’s not a series I’ll be continuing.

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Timy

Read: 100%

The Wickwire Watch was one of the books that caught my interest among the finalists and was looking forward to reading it. To speed things up a bit, I read both the ebook and listened to the audiobook during the week.

Jacquelyn Hagen’s debut novel is an interesting mix of genres – it has some mystery elements, some epic fantasy and there is also something cozy about it, especially in the middle section of the book. What I couldn’t quite figure out was the target audience. Ink, whom I consider to be the MC, was a teenage boy – though he had to grow up way too fast – and the book is pretty clean when it comes to swearing or violence (though there is the method by which Bash died). Which is not a bad thing, though personally, I prefer having some profanity in my books, but that’s just me.

The Wickwire Watch is easy to get into, as it starts off as a murder mystery – and I *love* murder mysteries – plus the atmosphere/worldbuilding really works well. Before I knew it, I was a good 15-20% into it. I guess it helps that it’s relatively short (thankfully). The pace was good, things happened, and we’ve got just enough info to keep up the interest. I liked Ink and Spindler, especially the latter who is a newspaper man, and so has a general curiosity for the world. At first, they both got about equal spotlight, but then the focus shifted solely to Ink and his adventures. While I appreciated getting to know about the Colonists who play a major role in the grand scheme of things, I had two issues: 1) we got introduced to about 10 people in one chapter which was a lot of info and I never could keep them straight in my head, and I still struggled about one or two by the end and 2) these parts slowed down the pace quite a lot.

I’m not sure if this book needed more pages for us to explore the village AND follow the investigation, or the same amount of pages but less village life and more investigation. Probably the latter. The point is, we needed more info about what was going on. A chapter here or there just wasn’t able to cut it. I really, really wanted to follow Spindler more and learn what he is learning. While Ink is an interesting character with dubious choices, I’m not sure he was a strong enough character to carry the book on his back. Then again, I’m not sure I’m invested enough in him, so that’s probably where my issue lays. I’m certainly not happy with some of his choices, but it’s hard to say what choices I would make in a similar situation.

But let’s talk about the positives. The Wickwire Watch is really easy to read, Hagen’s style is very smooth and there are no overabundant flourishes. If you love purple prose, this book is not for you. It’s not an overly exciting, or action-packed story, but there are just enough high stakes to make the tension plausible. It also has some interesting ideas, the watch, for example, or the Spectors. Nothing really new in the genre, but that’s okay. The ending doesn’t give us many answers but certainly sets up the rest of the series and teases just enough to make you interested in reading on. Also, can I please give bonus points to the narrator of the audiobook? I happened to listen to that part where Caradoc sings a little song and I was so happy to find the narrator actually singing. He’s got a nice voice too, I shall add!

The Wickwire Watch certainly has its issues, I think it needed some different creative decisions, but I also think it has potential, and I had a nice time reading it. I’m still curious about some of the answers waiting for us, and especially learning more about Caradoc, whom I think is the most intriguing character among a wide cast. Let’s hope we get more of him in the future!

Our Judgement
Team Queen's Book Asylum's scores for The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen
Bjorn: 5
Jen: 6
Liis: 5
Olivia: 5
Paul: 5
Timy: 6.5

Our score for The Wickwire Watch by Jacquelyn Hagen

Score 5.5/10

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