My name is Jax.
That is the name granted to be by my human masters.
I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world - and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.
I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.
But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.
I am a slave. But I shall be free.
I have watched the rise of Ian Tregillis with great interest. I was first introduced to his work via his Milkweed Triptych books, a trilogy that included English warlocks and Nazi super soldiers pitting their wits against each other as the war raged around them. To say I was smitten with these books would be an understatement. I bloody adored them and their action filled pseudo-Lovecraftican weirdness! So when I heard that Tregillis was writing another alternate history with steampunk themes called The Mechanical, I celebrated, and then immediately ordered a copy for myself.
And boy, I am glad I did!
I loved so many things about this book that it would take me an age or two to completely deconstruct and explain my thoughts on it, so I will try and keep it simple. This book is an absolute stunning read, and Tregillis is one of the most underrated writers in the world today.
The Mechanical is set in an alternative universe where in the 17th century prominent scientist Christiaan Hyugens uses magic to develop an army of intelligent clockwork automatons that are bound (via a series of spells and bonds) to their masters. This breakthrough changes the face of history in Europe, with the Calvinist Dutch empire surviving and expanding rapidly whilst overthrowing their foes (who in their right mind would fight an army of automatons anyway?). The Mechanical takes place three hundred years after this, with Dutch still remaining the dominant power around the globe despite being opposed by French Papists, who are becoming more and more desperate as time passes.
The opening pages of the book set the tone. We are introduced to the first of the main protagonists of this story, an automaton called Jax, as he watches the execution of French spies. From this beginning Tregillis launches into a tale that combines themes from steampunk, spy novels, political thrillers, and philosophical tracts. Jax, following the execution of the French spy ring in the Netherlands, find himself unwittingly (when he is used to smuggle intelligence across the Atlantic) caught up in wide ranging events alongside the other protagonist of the book, French spymaster Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord. Their fates become further entwined as they attempt, amidst the growing chaos, to achieve what they want most our of their existence, freedom (Jax) and revenge (Berenice). Their relationship is truly one of the highlights of the book. I absolutely adored the character of Jax (and the Clakkers in general), and how he struggled with his growing humanity and the dilemma of free will amidst the sea of cold cruelty from humanity around him. Jax's tale was truly absorbing, and his inner monologue and existential crisis kept me glued to the pages as I read. Berenice was also a fascinating character, with the highs and lows of her life revealing a truly complex and layered individual whose main goal in life was one of vengeance throughout the story. As her complicated struggle with life grew more tense, so did Jax's existential crisis. Add to this a cast of other spies, clakkers, and religious and political figures ruthlessly building or trying to destroy an empire and you have the makings of an incredible story.
The world building in the Mechnical is also simply superb. As a history buff and teacher I was utterly enthralled by the world Tregillis created in this book. It was weird, wonderful, and filled with little tidbits that sent waves of contentment coursing through my brain. There is no one on earth (that I can immediately think of) that writes alternative history quite like Tregillis, and it is truly gripping when he flips history on its head and weaves themes from fantasy, steampunk, and philosophy into it. The world building alone makes this book worth buying, and then Tregillis adds a wonderful story that is filled with intrigue, action, and adventure to the melting pot to take it to that next level.
The pacing and timing was also superb, and I tore through it in two sittings over the space of a couple of days. Whenever I had a spare moment I found myself eying the book and considering whether or not I had the time to devour another chapter instead of doing the chores around the house. That for me is the sign of a great book. I was forever looking for my fix!
I literally cannot fault this book... and I seriously could ramble on and on for days and days about the little nuances that I loved in this book, such as the threading of the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza (who existed in this alternative timeline!), or the clash between clockwork automatons and French applied chemistry. The Mechanical is simply an awesome tale (and the first in a series!), and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.
If you have a beating heart and functioning brain you will love this book.
5 out of 5 stars.
A review copy was provided.