It’s 1926, but not the 1926 we remember. There is no Lost Generation following the First World War, no Jazz Age, no impending economic collapse. Instead, the world, or at least the largest part of it, is ruled over by the Dutch. How have the Dutch managed this feat? Magic, of course.
Well, they call it alchemy, but it’s essentially magic, a combination of mysticism and technology that creates a horde of “clakkers” – mechanical creatures designed to do the bidding of their creators. With this technological marvel in their pocket, the Dutch rule the world, with only a rump New France holding on in what we would call Canada.
Regardless of the precise verbiage, Ian Tregillis has created a really interesting world with his Alchemy Wars trilogy, the third volume of which is due this fall or winter. It’s a world that allows readers to dive into to heady questions of philosophy and free will, all the while creating deed and interesting characters engaged in life or death struggles.
Depending on how you define “life,” of course. Or “death.” For one of the main characters in the series is Jax a clakker built to be a general servant and slave. When The Mechanical begins, Jax is present for the gruesome execution of a “rogue” clakker, one who has managed to slip the bounds of the “geas” that define his existence.
It’s not giving much away to say that Jax escapes all that, thanks to a sudden case of free will. At the same time, another character, a human, has his taken away. All the while the master of French spies (or former, as the case may be) is doing her best to try and understand the Dutch magic as a way of saving her kingdom. Their adventures aren’t for the faint of heart – Tregillis is a very descriptive writer and uses that skill to devastating effect when it comes to physical altercations – but they are exciting, occasionally funny, and ask some interesting questions.
Of the first two books in the trilogy, The Mechanical comes off slightly better. That’s largely down to the fact that it gets to introduce you to this new world and the sense of discovery is palpable. Furthermore, while both books are obviously parts of a larger whole, The Mechanical comes off as a better stand alone story than The Rising, which is clearly just setting up the pieces for the big finale in the third book.
Aside from that, there are couple of things that hold The Rising back. The Mechanical essentially has three main characters – Jax, the French spymaster, and one of her spies. All of them carry their weight (although the last one disappears once he gets “treated”) for the length of the book.
Jax and the spymaster return in The Rising, where the third leg of the stool is taken over by Longchamp, the captain of the guard in the last redoubt of New France. He was a minor character in The Mechanical, fleshed out briefly but well, and a world class blasphemer. He fit that role well. He doesn’t do so well with the promotion to main character, however. Oddly enough, with more time on the page he becomes less interesting and the blasphemous motivational speeches become tiring. Part of that is because his part of the story – a defense of the French capital from attacking clakkers – takes up entirely too much of the book.
The other disappointment about The Rising is that it pushes some of the philosophizing to the background in place of action. Nowhere is that more evident than when Jax finds a community of other rogue clakkers. There’s a great chance there to explore what free will really means – particularly in terms of evil and/or unethical behavior – because you have the community of beings who weren’t able to exercise it for so long. Unfortunately, it becomes little more than a side trip to allow Jax to grab a McGuffin and get back to the main plot. I really wish this had been stretched out some more.
While I have more nits to pick with The Rising than The Mechanical, that’s all they are. Tregillis has created a fascinating world populated by interesting people (and non-people) doing daring things. Can’t wait to see how he wraps things up later this year!