I felt that Ian Tregillis' the Milkweed Triptych was an intelligent, thought-provoking, inventive, and engrossing work which was indubitably one of the very best speculative fiction series of the new millennium. So when it was announced that Orbit would publish the author's new series, The Alchemy Wars, I couldn't wait to get my hands on The Mechanical!
For some unfathomable reason, Tregillis wrote this new novel in a totally different narrative voice, one bereft of every single aspect that made the Milkweed Triptych such a memorable read. Indeed, this one is decidedly YA-ish in style and tone, similar to works by Brian McClellan or Brandon Sanderson early in his career. Gone are the shades of gray, the depth of characterization, the complexity of the challenges the protagonists must face and the emotional toll it takes on them. In short, if you've read Ian Tregillis' first trilogy and Something More Than Night, it feels as though this book was written by someone else.
I can understand that the different narrative voice is probably meant to make Tregillis more appealing to a younger, more mainstream SFF readership. Yet I can't help but feel that it might lose him a lot of fans who have stuck with him since they first read Bitter Seeds a few years ago. I know I'm in no hurry to pick up the second installment. . .
Here's the blurb:
The Clakker: a mechanical man, endowed with great strength and boundless stamina -- but beholden to the wishes of its human masters. Soon after the Dutch scientist and clockmaker Christiaan Huygens invented the very first Clakker in the 17th Century, the Netherlands built a whole mechanical army. It wasn't long before a legion of clockwork fusiliers marched on Westminster, and the Netherlands became the world's sole superpower. Three centuries later, it still is. Only the French still fiercely defend their belief in universal human rights for all men -- flesh and brass alike. After decades of warfare, the Dutch and French have reached a tenuous cease-fire in a conflict that has ravaged North America. But one audacious Clakker, Jax, can no longer bear the bonds of his slavery. He will make a bid for freedom, and the consequences of his escape will shake the very foundations of the Brasswork Throne.
In the past, Tregillis wrote paranormal alternate history novels in which he tinkered with WWII and the Cold War. With an eye for historical details, his evocative prose brought the story to life in a way few of his peers can achieve. I was expecting more of the same in The Mechanical, but the worldbuilding is inexplicably subdued. Sadly, we learn very little about Huygen's discovery and how the Dutch came to rule most of the world afterward. In his previous novels, the author always managed to capture the essence of the countries, regions, and cities in which the action took place. In The Mechanical, it doesn't feel as though he failed to do so. It almost feels like Tregillis didn't even try. As if most of the worldbuilding has been excised from the manuscript during the editing process. Still, it felt kind of cool to discover that Montréal, known in this one as Marseilles-in-the-West, is home of the exiled French royalty, and that Québec is where the Pope and his entourage also fled from the Protestant onslaught.
As the first volume in this series, The Mechanical is more or less an introduction for what will follow after and it doesn't really stand all that well on its on. Although it was never meant to be a stand-alone work, it offers little in terms of resolution. The main theme explored throughout the book appears to be free will. Ian Tregillis' original narrative voice with its adult-oriented themes would have had no problem approaching this topic from a variety of angles. But this new YA-ish narrative voice falls a little flat and can never really get things off the ground in that regard.
The Mechanical features the POVs of three quite disparate protagonists. Jax, one of the Clakkers, the mechanical men, now free of the compulsion that made him a slave to the Brasswork Throne, is considered a rogue and must escape to New France before he is captured and destroyed. Pastor Luuk Visser, a Catholic priest in The Hague masquerading as a Protestant pastor and secretly spying on the enemy for the Holy See. And Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, head of the French secret services and known as Talleyrand. Three sets of eyes through which we see events unfold, on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Jax's is probably the most interesting POV of the bunch, as it's through him that we learn more about Clakkers, the Brasswork Throne, and the rest of the Dutch Empire. This mechanical man is also the only engaging character to follow. Through Visser's point of view, we learn how the Catholic Church opposes the Dutch and how the French seek to free the Clakkers from slavery on account of their something akin to a soul. But midway through the book, Visser's plans come undone and he'll no longer be the man he used to be. As such, he'll lose most of his appeal. Berenice, as head of the French secret services, is almost a caricature. Temperamental and prone to making piss-poor decisions, she's definitely not the sharpest tool in the shed. Which makes one wonder how she could possibly have ended up with such an important role. Rather dumb from the very beginning, she seldom exhibits any shred of common sense and she's a veritable chore to follow. Other than swearing like a sailor, there is nothing remarkable about her. Hence, to have her make everything come together at the end of the book feels decidedly contrived. Moreover, it robs the finale of any kind of punch it could have had.
The pace is fluid throughout. And though The Mechanical might not be as dense and complex and compelling as its predecessors, it is interesting and entertaining enough to make it a quick read. It's just that the payoff at the end is nowhere near what it was in the three Milkweed Triptych installments.
By cutting down on worldbuilding, the author took away most of the depth that could have made many of his concepts and themes quite fascinating. Time and again, you hope for more information, for the author to spend a few paragraphs elaborating on this or that aspect. But it is in vain. And there are some cool concepts in this book. Quite a few, actually. Trouble is, they are never explored in-depth. Which somehow always makes you feel shortchanged, with more questions than answers. For its part, the sub-par characterization prevents the POV protagonists from carrying this tale on their shoulders, so there is no chance they can find a way to save this one.
In the end, you find yourself with a book which had the potential of being as great as anything else the author has ever written. But so-so execution, lack of depth, and poor characterization make The Mechanical by far Ian Tregillis' weakest work to date.