The Mechanical (The Alchemy Wars)
by Ian Tregillis
Review by Benjamin Wald
Orbit Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780316248006
Date: 10 March 2015 List Price $17.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
How do you top Nazi psychics battling English warlocks? How about Dutch clockwork robots, powered by alchemical secrets stolen from Isaac Newton, opposed in their ambition to conquer the world only by French soldiers wielding epoxy? Ian Tregillis, the inventive author of the Milkweed Trilogy, featuring the aforementioned Nazi psychics and English Worlocks, has begun on a new trilogy with his latest work.
In The Mechanical, we are introduced to a world dominated by the Dutch empire, which is maintained by their army of alchemical clockwork servants and solders, the clakkers. Built and maintained by the mysterious guild of horologists, the clakkers serve as tireless servants and deadly weapons, controlled by the alchemical geasa with which they are built. The French continue to oppose the Dutch empire, but have been driven back to the new world, i.e. North America. Only the skill of their chemists, who have discovered various glues and epoxy's that can immobilize the deadly clakker soldiers, have allowed France to hold on, but a potential traitor in their midst threatens this precarious advantage.
The setting is obviously a large part of the appeal of the book, and Tregillis does an excellent job of bringing the setting to life. Especially effective are the sections told from the point of view of a clakker, Jax. From Jax, we learn that clakkers are intelligent, conscious beings, who are forced into servitude by blinding agony if they disobey the geasa built into them. We see the causal disregard of the Dutch for their mechanical servitors, and the extent to which clakker labor is essential to everyday life among the Dutch. Clakkers are used for everything from pulling carts, to cleaning houses, to tirelessly rowing boats across the ocean faster than the winds could manage.
Jax also brings one of the main themes of the work into sharp focus; free will. Originally, Jax is bound to servitude, and we see how he manages small acts of resistance to assert his own identity. However, when he is accidentally freed of the geasa that bind him, he has to learn how to deal with his newfound freedom, and escape the Duth, for whom a free clakker is a terrible threat that must be destroyed.
The story also follows two other characters. Luuk Visser is a French spy who has infiltrated Holland. He is a devout Catholic, but poses as a protestant minister as part of his disguise. Visser is an interesting character. His intense devotion and strong moral compass sit uneasily with his status as a spy, and the tensions of this dual role do a lot to deepen his character. Berenice Charlotte is a French noblewoman who holds the position of Tallyrand- French spymaster. She was a less successful character to my mind. Tregillis seems quite enamored of her, and she displays an admirable independence and stubbornness, and she is utterly focused on her goals, willing to do whatever needs to be done to get what she wants. But her character never develops as much depth or richness as Jax or Visser.
Much of the novel is taken up by introducing the setting and characters, and following Jax's attempts to escape following his being freed. However, the plot takes a while to get going, and at the end it isn't clear what is being set up for the next book. I would have appreciated a bit more of a self-contained plot, or at least a book that makes clear where the next book is going. It felt a bit unsatisfying in terms of plot, despite the interest of the setting.
Overall, I enjoyed the setting, and have high hopes for the series, but I do hope that the next volume has a bit more in the way of a self-contained plot and gives a sense of where the series as a whole is heading.