250 years before Ian Tregillis’ stunning novel, The Mechanical, opens, Christiaan Huygens made a remarkable discovery that blended alchemy and chemistry and engineering to create sentient automatons called Clakkers. The Clakkers helped the Netherlands build an empire that spans the globe. In an alternate 1926, the war between the Dutch and the remnants of Canadian New France is heating up again. At the center of the war is another conflict for the freedom of the enslaved mechanical people the empire depends on. The Mechanical is the first in a series.
Jax is a 118 year old Clakker who currently serves the Schoonraad family. When we meet him, Jax is fighting against the alchemical compulsions that bind him to the Schoonraads and the Dutch government to witness the execution of a rogue Clakker—a mechanical who managed to free himself. Through Jax’s perspective, we learn of the torturous lot of mechanicals. Disobeying orders causes them unimaginable pain, but humans are taught that they can’t feel and have no souls. The whole system depends on this lie. As if Jax’s existence weren’t complicated enough, he finds himself in the middle of an international spy ring and on the front lines of this world’s version of the Great Game.
Jax isn’t our only narrator. Tregillis also gives us a priest turned spy turned monster, Luuk Visser, and the French spymaster, Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord. Berenice is a wonderful character. She serves as the French King-in-Exile’s Talleyrand. Her goal is to see the king back on the throne in Paris, but that’s what all the Talleyrands have been trying to do since Louis XIV was defeated by a Clakker army. What I loved most about the indomitable Berenice is her salty tongue. She’s devious and determined and she can outswear a sailor any day of the week.
While Jax gains independence, Berenice finds herself stripped of her powers and influence after one of her big ideas results in disaster. Visser, the former priest has perhaps the most harrowing journey. Talleyrand posted him to Amsterdam, the lion’s den for an agent of New France. Worse, the rest of his network has just been rolled up and executed. He sees his doom around every corner. This would have been enough for me, but Tregillis turns up the heat on this character and plunges him into an agonizing existential nightmare.
All three plotlines converge in New Amsterdam for an explosive conclusion. Along the way are nail-biting battles, airship crashes, philosophy and theology, real politick, and alchemy. The Mechanicals is nearly 500 pages long, but it didn’t feel like it. The pacing races along as Tregillis’ characters fill in details about this alternate, Dutch-conquered world and as the author himself sets up the next novel in the series.
I’ve been a fan of Ian Tregillis since I first picked up Bitter Seeds. Tregillis’ novels are original blends of science fiction and fantasy, with touches of other genres mixed in. The Milkweed Trilogy was a war series. Something More Than Night was noir. With The Mechanical, Tregillis is now transforming steampunk. The man’s talent and imagination are incredible. I truly hope that there are no publishing snafus to delay the next book in the Alchemy wars.
I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 March 2015.