Review: The Empty Hourglass (Deal with a Devil) by Cornelia Grey

Thomas Escott has always wanted to be a toymaker, yet just as he achieves his dream, an accident claims his right hand. He’s certain his life is over—until he hears about groundbreaking prosthetics being made by a reclusive inventor.

Jethro Hastings is perfectly content to live alone up in the mountains working on a secret masterpiece: a humanoid automaton that will change the scientific community forever. He’s behind schedule, and the date of the unveiling is fast approaching, so when Thomas shows up on his doorstep offering help in exchange for a mechanical hand, Jethro agrees. Time, after all, is running out on another deal he’s made: one with the devil.

The devil gives Jethro’s inventions life, but he can just as quickly take life away—Jethro’s, to be exact. As the sand in the devil’s hourglass falls, marking the time until the end of the deal, inventions go haywire, people get hurt, and Thomas realizes he needs Jethro just as much as his prosthetic. Now he must find a way to save Jethro’s soul, but negotiating with a devil is just as difficult as it sounds.

The things I've read from this author I've enjoyed but this wasn't my favorite. There were things I enjoyed about it like the steampunk and her usage of words as visual aids, but overall I feel like it was pantsy. I have so many questions and so many things just didn't add up for me to believe this was a constructed narrative.

So, this could be a little spoilerish. 

Thomas is a toymaker by trade in this AU setting. He's come from Lunaris to Montrale in search of Jethro Hastings who's been making a name for himself in prosthetics. Thomas lost his hand in an accident and believes if he can just get his hand back everything will "go back to normal". What doesn't make sense is the mysterious letter that he received from an anonymous do-gooder simply named F who put the bug in Thomas' ear about Jethro's work. What's F's motivation for this? How did he find Thomas? It seems the reader is supposed to chalk it up to F's omniscience but I'm not that sort of reader.

F is the devil, Farfarello, who is the link between the books in this series, though they can be read as standalones. I'm not an overly religious person and I'm not even sure if I'm reading the subtext correctly, but Grey seems to be challenging the dogma that "hell" and "heaven" and all their antecedents aren't as black and white as we're led to believe which is actually part and parcel of what draws me to her writing. However, it does further highlight the wonky motivations of Farfarello. He's already made his deal for Jethro's soul and given him an ominous time limit in the form of an hourglass. Why throw Thomas into the mix? Just general nefariousness? 

Time limit for what, you ask?

Jethro made a snap decision that he wanted to go out with a bang and all the glory as a genius inventor, so he makes a deal. Farfarello will give life to his automaton in exchange for his eternal soul. Jethro's rash decision really makes no sense to me. I'm assuming he was depressed, lonely and it sounded like a good idea at the time? Another thing that didn't gel was him making this deal without having mostly finished the automaton. Who wants to spend their last days sleep deprived in a tiny lab tinkering away on a mechanical small intestine? Perhaps having Jethro's perspective would've helped explain his motivations, but the entire story is told through Thomas.

The Mina character was a bright spot and a couple of the secondary characters added in positive ways to the story. The resolution was obvious which was fine, but it took a lot of words to get there. Words that I would've expected to be used to develop these characters and make me invest in their story, but that didn't happen. An edit to tighten up some of slower spots in the story and delete some of the minutiae wouldn't have been a bad idea. I mean, I appreciate symbolism as much as the next but the spiders were a little heavy handed. 

This isn't necessarily a complaint more of an FYI. I don't want to make a global statement about Grey's writing since this is only my third experience with her, but it seems she doesn't really write romance. She does a great job with settings, though. There are a couple of quasi-romantic scenes but the relationship development is non-existent. They go from strangers to colleagues. I can maybe buy that they are at the beginning of a friendship and they're somewhat attracted to one another, but I can't buy and HEA or even a HFN which brings me to the epilogue and even the last chapter struck me as tacked on to explain some of the plot holes. And that is what led me to the "pantsy" descriptor.

If you enjoy steampunk stories this could work for you.

An ARC was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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