The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My definition of science fiction is "what if." What might happen in the future, as well as what could have happened in the past. The official term for the latter is "alternate history," and there are some very good books along these lines. It takes quite a bit of careful thought and detailed worldbuilding; mapping out exactly what happened from the point of divergence, and extrapolating the consequences of this divergence. Not only from the nuts-and-bolts point of view--the divergence itself--but more importantly, its effects on people. It's damned hard to do well.
This book does it very, very well.
It creates a world where Isaac Newton's alchemy not only works, but in fact can be harnessed to produce artificial clockwork beings called Clakkers. This produces a historical upheaval where the Dutch and their relentless, nearly unstoppable army of Clakkers (I mean, the Terminators have nothing on these things) conquers the world. The Clakkers are kept in servitude by the irresistible compulsions and pain of their geasa, the alchemical orders placed on them by their masters. When your body will ignore your mind and obey your masters no matter what, no matter that the intelligence inside the Clakker is screaming over what it is being forced to do...Tregillis describes this horror through two of the three viewpoint characters, and it is harrowing indeed. (We start out with just the Clakkers subject to this slavery, but the stakes are upped about halfway through the book, when a way is found to subject humans to the process as well, turning one of the viewpoint characters into a ruthless assassin.)
The worldbuilding in this book (first of a series) is superb. Thankfully, the information is not dropped as clunky infodumps; it unfolds naturally along with the story, just enough for the reader to mostly understand what is going on at any given time. The focus is on the characters, particularly Jax, a servant Clakker who is purely by accident given his Free Will. The main conflict is between the factions working to free the Clakkers and the factions trying their damndest not only to hold on to them, but expand their capabilities. There are layers upon layers here, of spies, counterspies, doublecrossing, backstabbings, and rather a lot of killing (as well as a bit of squicky brain surgery); it's not as dark and bloody as some books I've read recently, but it's there.
At the same time, the concept behind the Clakkers is inventive and wonderfully detailed, and beautiful at times. There's a sentient Clakker ocean liner (maybe to take the place of the Titanic, since that never seems to have existed in this history), and a sentient airship. Said airship speaks in poetry, and its brief life--it is freed by Jax during his escape from New Amsterdam, only to be shot down twenty-four hours later--is poignant and memorable. These and other details the author uses to bring Clakker society and culture to life made me relax into the narrative, confident that this story is in the hands of someone who knows what he's doing and where he's going.
And what a marvelous and fantastic story it is. This is one of the best books I've read this year, and I can't wait to get my hands on the sequel.
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