I realized something about the appeal of the Concept Album after reading Clockwork Angels–a novel written by Kevin J. Anderson and “based on” the album of the same name by Rush. It’s more accurate to say that Kevin J. Anderson wrote the book alongside Neil Pert’s crafting of the story and lyrics. It was a collaborative effort between the two, if the afterword is to be believed. Ultimately Pert had the final say, with Anderson simply bringing the man’s ideas to fruition.
He certainly did a better job with this than he did with Dune.
What I learned, however, is that a concept album is sort of like an incomplete image of connect-the-dots. It’s like listening to the soundtrack to a musical like Fiddler on the Roof, Sweeney Todd or Into the Woods. Solitary moments where the emotion is allowed to be embellished through song and poetry of lyrics, rather than told in conversational performance or colorful-yet-blunt prose. Some of the best lyrics are expressive rather than explanatory. After all, given the nature of music, you have fewer words in a stretch of time to convey thoughts or ideas.
So when the album Clockwork Angels opens up with a tune like “Caravan”, the lyrics are vague about the world and instead get us inside of the head of the character. There are steamliners and there’s a city, but most of what we get is our protagonist seeking to break away from their old life and chase their dreams in the city. You’re provided an idea of what is going on, rather than being told specifically what is going on.
“Caravan” is followed up by “BU2B”, conveying the philosophy followed by the citizens of this vague world. Do as you’re told, do not try and comprehend the greater machinations of the universe, and just accept that all we get is all we deserve. All is for the best. It does not directly follow the events of “Caravan”, nor does the titular track “Clockwork Angels” detail how our protagonist found himself in the presence of gear-and-cog driven cherubims.
The album continues on this way, highlighting specific moments to the tale. By being constructed in such a fashion, you get an emotional depth and exploration but lack the specifics. Ultimately, such information is instead constructed in one’s mind. How do you go from “The Wreckers” to “Headlong Flight” to “BU2B2” to “Wish Them Well”? The album doesn’t make it explicitly clear, but my mind can begin filling in the blanks.
Which is where truly discussing the novel becomes difficult. I have unwittingly developed expectations of the story, and the book tells a different story than I expected. I think, however, that ultimately says more about me and what I would find to be a profound and excellent story than it does anything about the book itself. Needless to say, were I to write the story, it would have been much more of a downer.
As it stands, Clockwork Angels actually makes for a pretty good Young Adult novel. In fact, I might even call it the Anti-Young-Adult novel. It’s not that it rejects some of the trends and concepts outright, and it turns out our hero Owen was, in some way, the Most Important Character–as is often the case with Young Adult fiction. However, it’s not really an empowerment fantasy as other Young Adult fiction devolves into. He’s still not a “destined one”. He’s merely a dreamer in a world where people don’t dream.
What is most significant is that Owen’s dreams are, in some fashion, all shattered. Nothing lives up to his expectations. Reality is more harsh than the fantasy he had convinced himself exists beyond the borders of his home. Despite this failure of reality to meet his expectations, he nonetheless gets to see more lands and more types of people–be they good or terrible–than he ever would have before. The experience opens his eyes to the world, teaches him what his small, humble town could not, and provides him a lifetime worth of memories.
It’s a surprisingly unique and mature lesson that does not often permeate the adolescent targeted fiction novel. So often the protagonist has that special something which acts as a key to great power, making them the only one that can save the universe. What makes Owen “special” is not, in fact, special at all. It nearly makes him a tool in the machinations of others. He simply dares to dream.
What keeps this book on the Young Adult level is a lack of sophistication. Despite being comfortable in his life and absolutely certain that All is For the Best, he wastes no time reaching out for that hand on the steamliner caravan. Without much thought he grasps on and begins his adventure. Yes, it is certainly met with a brief panic, but it washes away so swiftly. It felt jarring. It felt convenient. Get the plot moving along at a quick pace. A better writer would have had Owen snatch his hand back at the last minute, too frightened to step out of that bound box he has lived in. His village is literally a comfort zone, and no matter how big you dream, there will always be misgivings when you are certain that All is For the Best. It should have been the following day that he realized how dissatisfied he is with his life. To become adamant that he wants more than what he has. Only then should he have gone back each night until the opportunity came once more.
Perhaps it’s that I’ve read too many writers more sophisticated than Kevin J. Anderson. Even J. K. Rowling seemed to take her time more in the original Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Despite her clunky prose, Rowling was able to make Harry feel multi-dimensional. Even if Owen’s character is roughly consistent, he never feels like a person. He feels as if he says, does, and thinks things because that’s the direction the story ought to go.
Or, more annoyingly, because it’s a lyric that Kevin J. Anderson felt like referencing, even if it doesn’t sound like something Owen would say at all. Perhaps that’s more the fault of Anderson’s writing itself. That he’s never able to convey Owen in a sense where Neil Pert’s lyrical content seems to fit the character’s personality. Or perhaps it’s a matter of how the lyrical content is referenced. Mentioning that “things go from bad to worse”, a reference to “BU2B2”, when at most the character has experienced a minor inconvenience just feels jarring. It develops further that disconnect between what is being read and what was imagined when simply listening to the album.
Be that as it may, once you expect the story to move at a quick clip, for the characters to feel more like puppets than people, and for some deeper setting concepts to go on without further exploration (such as a brief glint of hatred in the eyes of one of the Clockwork Angels), then you are able to accept the novel for what it is. An easy read that can be casually digested by an adult or safely handed down to a teenager or middle-schooler.
For me, it simply means that Clockwork Angels was a better album than it was a novel. Even so, I’d read it all again.