6 December 2016

Review: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis

Image from www.orbitbooks.net
The Liberation
Ian Tregillis
Orbit, 8 December 2017
PB, 433pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

The Liberation brings Tregillis's Alchemy Wars trilogy to a close. And what a journey it's been.

Set in a parallel 1920s, these books feature cog-driven robots forged from alchemically founded alloys. The 'mechanicals' or 'clackers' (the term 'robot' is never used) are bound to obey their creators in the (Dutch) Sacred Guild of Clockmakers and Alchemists. Using the power of their inhumanly strong and tireless machine servants, the Brasswork Throne long ago overcame France and Britain to found a world empire. A French King in Exile hangs on in Montreal, assailed by the might of New Netherland - where the US is in our world.

In the first two books we crossed the Atlantic from The Hague to New Amsterdam and back, following the mechanical servitor Jax (now named Daniel) who achieved freedom from the geasa of the Guild; the unfortunate French agent Visser, who was captured by the Dutch and subject to barbaric surgery to remove his free will; Berenice, the foul mouthed but quite magnificent French spymaster (codename: Talleyrand!) and Anastasia 'Tuinier' Bell, Berenice's opposite number in the Guild. We've also seen 'rogue' Clackers living in the far North under Mad Queen Mab and the deadly war between the French and the Dutch, leading to the ruin of Montreal.

As this book opens, Bell is recovering from serious injuries back in The Hague. She's on the mend, and has just been freed from her casts, allowing her to seriously contemplate getting closer to 'flirty' Nurse Rebecca.

Then, the sky falls in.

In the last book, Daniel saved the French Kingdom in Exile from destruction by freeing the mechanical armies of their bondage to the Guild. Now, the 'infection' he created - freedom - has arrived on the shores of Europe. What Bell and her colleagues - and the rest of the population of course - face is nothing less than the end of their way of life: not only the fury of the machines as an immediate tangible danger but sudden loss of the slaves they depended on to labour for them - to raise food, haul their carriages, manufacture things, even to drive the pumps that prevent the sea from flooding in. Without the clackers, none of this will happen, so those who evade an immediate gruesome death - there's lots of gore in the book! - face starvation, disease or death by exposure. The clockwork's winding down. The slow realisation of this fact is very well done, with all the stages of denial as the central (human) characters battle to keep hold of things.

The story is, then, at one level a rather clever piece of post-apocalyptic set not in the future but in that parallel world. But behind that there is the drama of the coming of freedom to the machines, and the question of what they will have to do to get it, and how they will use it.

Bell is faced with a practical task, seeking to understand what has gone 'wrong' even while a slow and horrible realisation dawns that the mechanicals she has been using and abusing are conscious creatures with their own feelings and needs. Not that she has any scruples about abusing humans either: the cells of the Guild bear witness to that, as do the labs in which Visser suffers. No, rather the knowledge brings horror precisely because she sees what a potentially ruthless enemy of humankind the Guild have created and set loose. This is all the more powerful because it's clear that at some level, Bell and her colleagues knew this all along. Because beyond the rebel clackers, there is a worse threat, arising directly from evil knowledge the Guild - and Bell in particular - has developed, knowledge that should not exist.

So there's a decided moral strand to the book, focused on Bell who both a magnificent, sardonic character and an utter moral monster with no principles whatsoever apart from safeguarding the Guild's secrets. (That pretty nurse? If she won't come willingly when she learns who Bell really is, Anastasia things, she will just get her arrested and flung in a cell overnight - that'll bring her round).

In this, Anastasia is an absolute match for Berenice who has undertaken her own dubious experiments after imprisoning the free mechanical Lilith. One might say that both women - and more, their societies - reap the consequences of all this, in particular the consequences of the Guild's 250 year control of the mechanicals. But there's much more than that. The book also explores the options available to the rebels - how are they to reason and act now they are bound to nobody? Some flee from this to Mab, who's happy to impose her own geasa. Some run to the wilds. Others engage in terrible slaughter. Others assert their consciences and even try to atone for the killing they have done, in the French-Dutch wars. It's a complex picture and nobody - human or machine - is wholly wrong, perhaps, or wholly right - apart from Daniel.

And that, of course, marks him out as a target, a potential suffering victim.

Quite how this calculus of suffering and freedom will play out is kept in doubt till almost the last moment of the book as familiar characters head to strange places and learn just how deep the threat to humanity - to freedom - really is, and have to consider what they will do to thwart it.

It's a similar theme in some ways to Tregillis's earlier Bitter Seeds trilogy where, confronted with German might in the 1940s, English wizards made dark bargains that rebounded on them later. Here, though, the threat is much more insidious, and the collusion with the dark forces more general. There's more - much more - moral ambiguity and many shades of grey in the characters. Excellent.

As with all the best series, I didn't want this to end. The characters are well realised, the writing vivid and the world so real you can almost smell it (the books reminded me in that sense of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials). But above all there is a real argument going on here about freedom and responsibility, about trust, about the need, sometimes for risk and above all perhaps about accepting the results of one's past choices - or the past choices of the society one is part of.

It's quite intoxicating stuff. I loved that earlier trilogy but I think Alchemy Wars is head and shoulders above them - Tregillis just keeps getting better and better and his writing is a pure joy.

Strongly recommended - read it yourself or if you've got an SF nerd in your life, for them (you'll have to buy them all three if they haven't read the others).

Finally - it's wonderful to see someone thoroughly invert steampunk cliches - these are clockwork creations, there's lots of brass around and even airships but it's not steampunk, there's not a lump of coal or a wisp of steam to be seen. Someone had better come up with a new genre name quickly.

My review of The Mechanical is here and of The Rising, here.

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