Tregillis, Ian. The Mechanical. 2015. New York. Orbit.
The Mechanical is an alternate history, fantasy, and science fiction novel that explores the ideas of humanity, free will, and religious conflict with a compelling and brutal story. It is told from the (third-person) viewpoints of three characters. One is clockwork and two are human; each has their own mixture of noble, self-serving, and morally gray motivations. It is set in 1926, in a version of history in which the Protestant Dutch Empire has conquered most of the known world, using clockwork slaves and soldiers known as Clakkers. The Clakkers are stronger and faster than any human, and fully sentient. The Dutch keep them enslaved with layers of magical compulsion called geasa, which inflict excruciating pain on any Clakker who tries to disobey or ignore an order. The Guild, responsible for the creation and maintenance of Clakkers, jealously guards the secrets of how they are made and operate.
Jax, a servant Clakker, is tasked with delivering an antique microscope from the Dutch capital of Hague to New Amsterdam, across the sea. An accident on the ship during the storm breaks the microscope, and the glass bead that falls out frees Jax from his geasa when it touches his inner workings. Jax is ecstatic to be free, but knows that his makers will destroy him if he is caught—and his own kin will be obliged to help hunt him down.
Luuk Visser, the pastor who gives Jax the delivery task, is actually a Catholic priest—spy for the French government and the Vatican. Burdened by guilt after the rest of his spy ring is executed, and for his long years of outwardly denying his faith, he resigns himself to martyrdom. News of a surviving comrade in Guild custody leads Visser to infiltrate the prison where she is held, intending to poison her and release her from torture—as well as to prevent her from telling the Guild about him. Visser does not, to put it lightly, get out unscathed.
Vicomtesse Berenice is the ruthlessly intelligent spymaster of France, the Talleyrand. When she learns of the decimated spy ring, on which she was relying for a crucial piece of information on Clakkers, she decides to take an enormous risk to get the information a different way. She is betrayed, and the operation backfires spectacularly. Berenice loses everything in a night—her job, title, possessions, an eye, and her husband. With a strong suspicion of who betrayed her, Berenice goes into exile and follows him to New Amsterdam, where her search leads her to both Jax and a strangely altered Visser.
The strong points of The Mechanical are its descriptive language, and its characters. Just enough information is given about the way in which the Clakkers, the terrifying Stemwinders, and the fantastic sentient ships operate to allow a mental image to be constructed. The world of the story is constructed in the reader’s mind with selective detail, rather than bogging them down with lengthy descriptions. The downside to this is that the settings and background information become something of a blur.
The viewpoint characters are not the easiest to connect or sympathize with, although they all certainly have sympathetic elements. Jax is arguably the most likeable of the three. Many of the actions he takes to preserve his own life and freedom are selfish, harming both other Clakkers and humans. Jax no longer has the geasa preventing him from doing and allowing this harm, but he is still troubled by it. His foremost goal is to remain free; his secondary goal of bringing the same freedom to the rest of his kind is more of a vague hope at this point in the series. Although he is still trying to figure out exactly what the right thing is, Jax tries to do it, at least when it doesn’t conflict with keeping himself from being melted down or re-enslaved.
Berenice is less immediately endearing, but just as multi-dimensional and interesting. She looks down on most of the people around her, remembering details about them not out of consideration, but to help her manipulate them. She puts others and herself in danger to get her job done in what she feels is the most efficient way—which is both a strength and a flaw, given her line of work. On the other hand, she does have genuine loyalty to her country and duty. She reacts to the shattering and humbling blow she receives in a way that is both human, and consistent with her character.
Visser’s viewpoint chapters are the most difficult to read. His struggles with his own guilt, fear, and selfishness are not at all pleasant to watch; he succeeds in overcoming his own flaws more than he credits himself with, but that’s still not much. His compassion for the Clakkers, and his own strong beliefs in free will and the existence of a soul, make what is done to him and how he spends the latter half of the novel all the more horrifying.
The overall story line comes off as a little underwhelming compared to the exploration of the characters. The first three quarters of the book are a rather slow and occasionally meandering build-up to the breakneck speed of the last few chapters. Many questions are raised that are obviously going to be fodder for the next two books in the trilogy. (Who exactly is Queen Mab, and is she even real? Is there a civilization of rogue Clakkers somewhere in the North? How will the way Lilith was treated by Berenice affect her view of humans? What exactly is the glass that freed Jax, and does it have a limited capacity to remove geasa? The list could go on almost indefinitely.) This isn’t to say that The Mechanical isn’t good on its own. The questions it raises about free will, where the line is drawn between thinking machine and person, and how easily people justify ill treatment of others, would make the trailing plot threads forgivable even if it were a stand-alone.
“While merely the warm-up for what promises to be a uniquely compelling series, The Mechanical is as intricate and exquisite as the clockwork wonders it brings to life.” – NPR
“… [Tregillis’s] characters are as convincing as ever, the plotting is beautifully articulated, the tone relentlessly grim and sometimes horrifying. And while the action rarely flags, Tregillis manages to pack in a good deal of philosophical probing.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Tregillis (Something More Than Night) launches a series with this superb alternate history filled with clockwork men and ethical questions on the nature of free will. … Tregillis’s complex setting is elegantly delivered, and the rich characters and gripping story really make this tale soar.” – Publishers Weekly
The history of alchemy and its similarities (and dissimilarities) with the development of the sciences in the real world vs. its place in the alternate history of The Mechanical could serve as a topic for book discussion, or a springboard for historical research.
Christiaan Huygens (among other names dropped throughout the story) was a real scientist and historical figure. Book groups or classes might research Huygens and/or other figures mentioned and discuss how their roles in history and accomplishments were changed or left the same for the purposes of the story.
The Dutch and the French have a variety of rationalizations for enslaving the Clakkers or treating them as less than people, respectively. There are obvious parallels between these rationalizations (they’re not human, free will is an illusion so protecting it doesn’t matter, etc.) and those used to justify similar treatment of people groups in the real world—both historically and in modern times. Book groups or classes could discuss these parallels in further detail, as well as the question of whether or not the way these themes are presented in the book made them think about real events differently.
Characters on different sides of the conflict have differing ideas of what free will is, and whether or not it even exists. These ideas, their merits, and their faults could be discussed in a philosophy or literature class, as well as in a book group.