10 March 2015

Review: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical
Ian Tregillis
Orbit, March 2015

I'm grateful to the publishers for letting me have a copy of this book on NetGalley.

I'd been looking forward to it coming out - I previously read Tregillis's alternate history of the Second World War where the British conjured demons to fight against unnaturally enhanced Nazi supersoldiers, and his noirish detective mystery about angels trying to unpick the nature of reality.

Now he's onto clockwork robots, powered by alchemy, in a world where Holland is the main power, relying on those robots, which an outclassed French regime-in-exile (think "Dangerous Liaisons" with epoxy bombs...) resists from North America.  The book is great fun, has an incredible zip to it, and fits in some fairly profound debates about both freewill and the duty we owe to sentient life, if we create it.

Jax is a slave, a "clakker" owned by (or leased to) a banking family in Amsterdam.  He must obey his owners' orders (and those of humans in general) or suffer a dreadful, burning pain from the unfulfilled "geas". There is a hierarchy of demands (geasa) here: orders from the Queen take precedence, of course, then the commands of the feared Guild of Clockmakers who built the unfortunate mechanical men (and women).  There are standing rules to not harm a human, and more requiring any rogue clakker to be denounced.  It's a skilful and inspired take on Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics but asking the question, what would it mean - how would it feel - to be chained by those laws?

Pastor Luuk Visser is outwardly a respectable Dutch clergyman.  In reality, he's a papist agent, an asset of the mysterious Talleyrand, French spymaster extraordinaire.  In this reality, France itself has been conquered by waves of soldier clakkers, leaving an exiled court in North America dreaming hopelessly of an eventual return to their lands and titles.

Berenice is a young woman at the French court.  While ostensibly set in the 1920s, the social set-up here is much more 18th century (as in Holland where availability of clakker labour has preserved an older, hierarchical society) and life at Court is a deadly game with serious rule.  But Berenice is well up to that...

As the book gets under way, the three characters embark on a series of deadly chases and escapes, all the time seeking to learn exactly what is going on and how to resist the Guild and its deadly Stemwinders.  The stakes are very high - clakkers can, it seems, escape the compulsions of the geasa, and become free.  But nobody seems to know how it happens. The French are ambiguous allies, portraying themselves as friends of the downtrodden clakkers - but are they more concerned with getting mechanical slaves themselves than with the ethics of the Dutch ones?

It's an immensely enjoyable book, launching what is clearly going to be a fun new series that should probably be described "something-punk" but I'm blessed if I can think of the right something (clock? Alchemy?) which possibly shows that this is pretty convention-defying and worth getting into.

Just remember: clockmakers lie!

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