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Saturdays in Books

Reviews of speculative fiction, YA, middle grade, and graphic novels, along with stray thoughts, links, and pictures.

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The SFWA European Hall of Fame: Sixteen Contemporary Masterpieces of Science Fiction from the Continent
Kathryn Morrow, James K. Morrow

Review: The Mechanical

The Mechanical - Ian Tregillis

I've been excited about reading this for years. There's a short story set in not-quite-the-same-world that I read and instantly wanted more of. There was such a large shift from our world contained in those few pages. I could feel the depth of potential in this divergence from our timeline.


I did wonder if this was the right book for me when the first chapter felt ten thousand years long, describing every possible sound in a public square instead of just hanging the spies I was there to see hanged. No worries, though, after a bit of a slow start, this was magnificent. 


In simple terms, this is a world where Alchemy is real. Real and used by Calvinists to create mechanical servants which supplant slavery with a far more efficient system. But that's the stepping off point as history has marched on hundreds of years since this not slight change.


This deviation ripples not just through the history of national politics, but of technology itself.  The world is a very different place when mechanical man power is the most successful form of work we derive. A form of work requiring no fuel and a flat out denial of free will from the Dutch masters.


There are a few references to the forestalled development and advancements of steam engines that I've seen referenced at winking at how this setting isn't steampunk. A limited view of what has been erased. Without steam powered engines advancing, I suppose Carnot was a poet or a baker? So many technologies with no place in a world where cars could be carried by magically animated legs. This book is set in a 1920's that feels at least a hundred years behind on all that stuff I spent close to a decade getting an education, some, but not all, replaced with alchemical constructs. The New York of this 1920's is full of horse and cart transport, yet watched over by sentient airships. A 1920's without combustion engines. The French reference a supply train, but I suspect that's a group of wagons rather than a locomotive.


While the Dutch have taken over continental Europe with the obvious military superiority of clockwork terminators, their spread in North America has been slow. Slowed by their reliance on mechanical servants for the majority of labor, servants only constructed at a single forge in the Hague. That's about to change, with the construction of a new forge on the new world. Also, the current generation of Alchemists has begun to look beyond simple modifications to the human form for their creations. Shipping has been, for centuries done in galley ships rowed by Clakkers, labor fitted to the form rather than the form designed for the task. As Jax travels to the new world, he'll see new kinds of enslaved Clakkers. 


I don't want to go too deeply into plot. Spy thriller mixed with contemplation of free will, I hope that will do. Plot is never really more than a means to explore characters traveling between bouts of bloodshed anyway, right? Let me instead take a moment to briefly mention each POV character. 


Jax, the Clakker who wants to be free is an everyman (or I suppose everyclakker) caught up in machinations well above his grasp of the world. His heightened senses lend a specific flavor to his chapters, one that took me a while to get into but once on board I rather enjoyed.


Berenice, the spy master who is almost as clever and well informed as she thinks. Her ends justify the means approach informing all her plans. I found it hard not to root for her, even when I thought her plan sounded ill-conceived.


Visser, a man who has been living in his head as a double agent for so long that he inevitably ends up living in his head. The stuff that happens to this man. I had at least 6 weeks of nightmares. It was glorious.


All three are convinced that Clakkers have souls, unlike the cultural bias trained into the Dutch. How each interacts with culturally constructed narratives might actually be more interesting than the ongoing discussion about the nature of free will the text continuously engages in. Jax, finding out how false the narratives about his kind are. Visser unable to communicate anything other than the face he projects during and after years of deep cover. Berenice, always able to find the right mask to play to expectations.


And by the end of this one, I have only the vaguest of notions what will happen next. We know what direction every character is heading and can take a guess at what will happen to at least one of them, but I cannot overstate how small that knowledge is in a world as vast as this. 


The downside (beyond the year long wait for the second installment in this trilogy) is really the lack of a map. We see very little of the radically altered world, with only vague hints about locations other than the few visited herein. I wish I knew what the Dutch empire looked like. What was happening in South America. What have the Chinese done with alchemy? Have any other European countries managed to maintain their borders or establish colonies? Okay, forget map, apparently I want the cartoon history of the clockwork work included as an appendix. I think that's the best complement I can give an alternate history fantasy novel - that I want all the world building cataloged for my enjoyment.


The upside is that I have two more of these to look forward to.