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The Wickwire Watch

by Jacquelyn Hagen


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.


John Mauro:

“Had Mr. Bash known this was the night he was going to die, he would have stayed at home.”

The Victorian charm of Charles Dickens meets the steampunk-inflected magic of Final Fantasy in The Wickwire Watch, the SPFBO9 finalist by Jacquelyn Hagen and the first entry in her Riverfall Chronicles series.

The lead protagonist is Inkwell Featherfield, or simply Ink for short, a plucky boy of uncertain age and parentage who maintains a livelihood through thievery and his clever wit. Dressed in his oversized clothes and top hat, Ink recalls the Artful Dodger from Charles Dickens’s 1838 novel, Oliver Twist. Jacquelyn Hagen incorporates gray morality in The Wickwire Watch through a cast of side characters with questionable motivations. 

The darkest part of the worldbuilding involves ghostly beings known as Spektors, who play an increasingly prominent role as the novel progresses:

“Spektors were once mortal. They are the spirits of those who died so full of hate and bitterness they couldn’t bear to leave this world behind without making others feel their pain and suffering.”

I also enjoyed the steampunk elements of The Wickwire Watch, including a magical pocket watch and plenty of airship action, which is always a treat for Final Fantasy fans like myself.

The Wickwire Watch changes style throughout the novel, opening as a Victorian murder mystery following the death of poor Mr. Bash. By the middle of the novel, The Wickwire Watch transitions into a cozy-ish found family-type story. The latter part of the book shifts tone again, becoming a dark fantasy with mild elements of horror:

“Ink opened his mouth to scream his bloody lungs out. But before the sound could form, the man reached forward, took him by the throat, and threw him onto the back of the horse.”

Although Jacquelyn Hagen’s writing is excellent throughout the novel, the inconsistent pacing and stylistic shifts in The Wickwire Watch threw me out of the story rather than engaging me as I had hoped.

Overall, The Wickwire Watch contains a lot of elements that I love, but these pieces didn’t come together as effectively as I would have liked. Still, readers looking for a Dickensian-inspired fantasy will find a lot to love here. The Riverfall Chronicles continues with The Spider Key, the second book of the series.

Whitney Reinhart:

Collaborative reviews are interesting and entertaining primarily for exposing the elements which each reviewer enjoys or dislikes. Unlike John, I thoroughly enjoyed the push/pull, contraction/expansion pacing of The Wickwire Watch. Hagen never lets the narrative languish or meander – even when slowing things down a bit. There are moments when it feels as though the instigating event, the suspicious death of Mr. Bash, has been forgotten but the author circles back and picks up the trailing ends nicely. 

Continental politics and social constructs throughout Eriaris, the world where Wickwire is set, play an intimate role in the lives of the everyday-people characters without being heavy handed or preachy. Some characters, such as Mr. Spindler and Ink are caught by surprise, swept away by events beyond their control. Others, such as Caradoc and Simon, are fighting the odds for the betterment of all. And the powerful do what the powerful always do – manipulate and wrangle to maintain control at all costs. I enjoy plucking out thematic elements and examining real-world implications or commentary. Hagen gave me plenty to think about and I appreciate it. After all, who really knows what’s going on? Ever?

But how could he have known? How was he to know anything anymore? A crack had been opened in the side of the world, revealing an entire realm he never knew existed. Nothing was certain now. All was a mystery. There was only one truth he understood, and understood well; life had just become a lot more dangerous.

This was an engrossing read for me and the ending had me gasping for breath while I drummed my thumb harder than necessary on my Kindle screen, hoping there was just a little more story left to read. 

Taylor (Maed Betwen the Pages):

The first hook of The Wickwire Watch is a murder mystery, which I’m a big fan of so I was interested from page one, but then the story folds this initial hook beautifully into the broader story and worldbuilding and I knew I was in for a great ride. As we learn more about the history of this world – its wars and factions – a theme arises of information access: how do you know that what you’ve heard is the correct story? It’s a theme I love to explore so I was very taken by Hagen’s nuanced discussion of it.

Our main character, a young boy named Inkwell Featherfield, is the kind of plucky teenage boy that can make you giggle with his wit in one moment and then make you want to pull your hair out for his stubbornness in the next; a balance hard to strike, but one Hagen manages to pull off. We also get to see him gradually grow and change in a very satisfying way as he needs to confront who he is and what he truly values.

There is a large portion of this book dedicated to the characters spending time together while not really “doing” anything and while for some people this may be an annoyance, I ADORE down time with characters so this was just another thing for me to enjoy. I also felt that this character work is what allowed later reveals and events to hit as well as they did.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this story and will definitely be continuing the series as I’ve heard it only gets better from here!

Team Score: John 6, Whitney 9, Taylor 8 Final Score: 7.5

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