On its surface, The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis is a fun alt-history about a world where the Dutch conquered everyone with the help of alchemy and clockwork robots. But a lot of the most mind-blowing stuff in this book is actually about the nature, and theology, of free will. Spoilers ahead...
In The Mechanical, it’s the early 20th century, but the past 200 years have unfolded in a very different fashion. The Dutch invented clockwork people, called Clakkers, which are sort of like golems (animated via symbols) and controlled using a kind of magical control over substances. Thanks to these unbeatable metal men, the Dutch empire has overtaken the whole world — New York is definitely still New Amsterdam, for example.
The main resistance to the Dutch rule comes from the French, who’ve been forced to abandon France for New France, which is where Canada is now. A handful of French spies are still operating inside the Hague, and the French are desperately seeking a method of breaking the magic geases that control the Clakkers, before New France is overrun.
There are three POV characters in this book. There’s Luuk Visser, a pastor in the Hague who’s secretly a French spy and who has obtained an ancient microscope that could be the key to understanding Clakker behavior. Then there’s Jax, a Clakker who’s entrusted with the care of that microscope, and who experiences a surprising change on his way to New Amsterdam. And finally, there’s Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, the French spymaster who operates under the name Talleyrand.
Part of what makes this book such addictive reading is the way that Tregillis juggles these three perspectives (not surprisingly for someone who’s worked with George R.R. Martin). The storylines move forward in parallel, and at times you’re desperately frustrated that one character doesn’t know the vital information that another character knows — but then these characters have a neat way of intersecting just when you least expect. Notably, Tregillis abandons POV chapters for POV sections within chapters, as the storyline gets faster and faster paced.
But another thing that kept me glued to this book is the way that Tregillis handles the idea of creatures whose freedom is enslaved via a terrible magic. It’s an intrinsically terrifying and hideous concept, and Tregillis uses it for all its considerable pathos.
He also keeps finding new ways to twist the knife and explore the implications of this idea, however. What does it mean to have a set of pre-programmed instructions, for a creature capable of independent thought? How do instructions get organized into hierarchies? What does it feel like when a geas is “activated” and forces you to take action in response to a situation? How difficult would it be to pretend to be a slave when you’ve actually been freed? And most of all, how much does it burn when you’re ordered to do things against your conscience, or when your “owners” are cruel, impulsive and completely unreasonable?
The portrayal of internalized oppression in this novel is fascinating and miserable, and it works nicely to make you root against those fucking Dutch people and their shitty empire. It also makes the main characters very much the underdogs in an epic struggle.
But meanwhile, Tregillis also finds a rich vein of theological and philosophical debate about the nature of free will that connects directly to this central conflict. The Dutch are not just Protestant, but Calvinist, believing that Free Will is an illusion and that everything is pre-determined by God. The French, meanwhile, are Catholics and believe absolutely in Thomas Aquinas’ doctrines of free will from the Summa Theologica. (I’ve never rooted for the Catholic Church as much as I did while reading this book.)
And meanwhile, Tregillis also weaves in a historical thread about the real-life connection between philosopher and lens-maker Baruch Spinoza and astronomer/mathematician Christiaan Huygens — who in Tregillis’ world was the inventor of the Clakkers. The rare microscope that Visser gets hold of contains a lens ground by Spinoza himself, and Spinoza’s ideas of determinism get an airing in the course of the book.
And one other way that Tregillis manages to dig into the question of free will: There’s a lot of interesting stuff buried in here about how both war and spycraft take away agency from people. War turns people into weapons, without any choice, and a good spy does some very distasteful things in the name of expediency. (Berenice, in particular, has one really revolting sexual encounter that she later has cause to be even more revolted by.)
At the same time, the world-building in this book is stupendous, and the alternate history is fascinating in its own right. A lot of the little details about the very different history of the United States and Europe keep surprising the reader — some technologies that existed in the real 1920s haven’t ever arrived, because we had Clakkers for the previous 200 years, for example. And this book can absolutely be read as just a corking fantasy adventure, in which things inevitably get worse and worse for the three embattled characters.
Which leads me to a couple complaints about this book. First of all, I didn’t realize this was the first book in a series — this wasn’t mentioned in my ARC, although I guess the final copy says “The Alchemy Wars: Book One” on the title page. And the book does not stand alone, at all. Even by the standards of the first book in a series, this feels very much like the beginning of a longer story, and not much is resolved at the end of this one. And second of all — major spoiler — towards the end of the book, two of the heroes start behaving in a fairly irrational manner, simply so that they will be in direr straits going into the next book.
All in all, though, The Mechanical is another thrilling and thought-provoking book from the author of Something More Than Night. Even in a world glutted with alternate histories and steampunk/clockworkpunk worlds, this book is something pretty special, and its elaborate metaphor for mental enslavement will stick in your mind long after reading.
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