Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

Tregillis is the author of the Milkweed Triptych,  a disarmingly bucolic name for a very dark and harrowing alternate-WWII fantasy trilogy in which the Allies try to match literal Nazi supermen with an ever darker and more dangerous power. (See my reviews of the three: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil.) The Mechanical begins a new series -- I believe this one is also a trilogy, but you can never be entirely sure how long a series will be until it completes -- which, so far, is not quite as dark and dangerous as the Milkweed books.

But not as dark as pitch still leaves a lot of room, and The Mechanical is quite dark on its own merits. It's set in a world where Christian Huygens was a skilled alchemist, and discovered, aside from the many things he actually did discover in the real world, a method to imbue life and will and volition into mechanical clockwork. With that breakthrough, the Dutch conquered the world on the back of an unstoppable river of Clakkers, clockpowered intelligent robots bound unbreakably with a golem-style seal on their foreheads. The only other European power left is France, whose king and court have a precarious existence in exile in a rustic fortress on the site of Quebec City in our world. All of Europe and the North American seaboard are ruled by the Dutch. (We don't see the rest of the world; there may be Chinese, Japanese, or Indian powers driven by other magical power, but I doubt it. It looks like the Dutch rule everything they want to rule.) The time is now in the early 20th century, and the most recent war between the Dutch empire and New France ground to a stalemate -- purely because of French advances in adhesives, the only thing to slow or stop Clakkers -- just recently.

Tregillis follows the story of three very different characters: a Clakker named Jax, bound by the same geas as all of his compatriots until an accident gives him free will; Luuk, a pastor and French spy in the Hague who is discovered and transformed by the nasty and inventive Dutch spy- and Clakker-masters; and the female French spymaster codenamed Talleyrand, who hatches a bold plan to interrogate an encapsulated but still functional Dutch war machine on the walls of New France and comes to bitterly regret that plan. And his story is about no less than free will and control, freedom and necessity, and of course the struggle against a cruel imperial power.

Each of the three gets the point of view for about a third of the book, interwoven as they have their separate harrowing adventures and meet and re-meet -- they start off on different continents, but the center of this book, and possibly for the trilogy, is the burgeoning colonial metropolis of New Amsterdam, where all three end up before the book is over.

It's as thrilling and wonderful and darkly inventive as the Milkweed books, and it's arguably steampunk, which may bring it a wider audience. (It's more clock-punk, for the sticklers out there.) Tregillis's work reminds me a bit of Tim Powers: there's a similar interest in working through ideas of history and secrets, though Tregillis's fictional worlds don't have the bone-deep Catholic underpinnings (and consequent chances of salvation) that Powers's do. Tregillis proves with The Mechnical that he's one of the great modern writers of fantasy -- he's followed up a great trilogy with another equally strong work.

(The sequel, The Rising, is already out, but I haven't gotten to it yet. And a third book, The Liberation, is scheduled for the end of this year.)

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