fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Jay Lake Mainspring EscapementMainspring by Jay Lake

Up till now, my exposure to Jay Lake has been limited to the author’s short fiction which either really worked for me or was underwhelming. Mainspring falls somewhere in the middle with the parts that I liked and disliked usually related to one another.

For instance, I loved the concept of Earth being part of a giant clockwork mechanism constructed by God, complete with colossal gears and springs. What I didn’t like so much was the haphazard manner in which this backdrop was described with certain aspects depicted in great detail while others were left frustratingly vague — like the Mainspring itself. I also liked the Victorian/colonial time period, but was disappointed by how little this alternate Earth was explored. After all, you would think that giant brass clockwork and an Equatorial Wall separating the planet into two halves would have a major impact on the world socially, politically, and economically, but that’s not the case — at least from what little we get to see.

I also loved the novel’s religious angle, particularly the idea of an entire quest driven by faith and divine intervention. The problem with this idea is that Hethor Jacques is just not convincing in his role as the world’s savior. Like why is his faith so strong, why does he have god-like powers, and why is he the only one who can rewind the Mainspring — other than Gabriel stating he was ‘created in the image of the Tetragrammaton’? For that matter, why is the Mainspring unwinding in the first place? It’s not just the unanswered questions though that are bothersome; it’s the characterization as a whole including Hethor’s lack of development, an inability to emotionally connect with Hethor, and a weak supporting cast — the last is more because secondary characters only appear in the novel for a short time.

Another problem with the novel’s religious angle is that Jay barely scratches the surface of the impact that such a perpetual miracle as God’s clockwork would have on peoples’ different faiths aside from the Rational Humanists and tweaking Christianity a bit — horofixes, a Brass Christ, etc:

Our Father, who art in Heaven
Craftsman be thy name
Thy Kingdom Done
Thy plan be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Forgive us this day our errors
As we forgive those who err against us
Lead us not into imperfection
And deliver us from chaos
For thine is the power, and the precision
For ever and ever, amen.

The good thing about Jay Lake’s approach is that the novel never gets preachy or too heavy-handed. Nevertheless, it would have been nice if he had played around more with this area of the book. Similarly, I wish he had expounded on the misogynistic attitude toward women that is only hinted at in the novel.

Story-wise, Mainspring is certainly imaginative and entertaining with its exotic locales, incredible wonders and dire perils — candlemen, airships, ‘winged savages’, a city of sorcerers, earthquakes, a tribe of non-human primates, et cetera — but the plot is fairly straightforward and is plagued by uneven pacing like rushing through important junctures of the book. Personally, I think the novel should have been fleshed out more which would have given the story, characters, and the world room to grow.

Even though Mainspring is marred by inconsistency — specifically the characterization, pacing, descriptive prose and the execution of certain concepts — I still enjoyed reading Jay Lake’s novel. After all, the book is highly creative, smart, and manages to challenge the mind, stimulate the imagination, and is fun to read all at the same time. The problem with Mainspring is that it had all of the potential of a modern-day classic. Because of its inconsistencies however, the novel is a flawed effort that exasperates almost as much as it amazes. Nonetheless, I have high hopes for the sequel.

Clockwork Earth — (2007-2010) Steampunk. Publisher: Jay Lake’s first trade novel is an astounding work of creation. Lake has envisioned a clockwork solar system, where the planets move in a vast system of gears around the lamp of the Sun. It is a universe where the hand of the Creator is visible to anyone who simply looks up into the sky, and sees the track of the heavens, the wheels of the Moon, and the great Equatorial gears of the Earth itself. Mainspring is the story of a young clockmaker’s apprentice, who is visited by the Archangel Gabriel. He is told that he must take the Key Perilous and rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. It is running down, and disaster to the planet will ensue if it’s not rewound. From innocence and ignorance to power and self-knowledge, the young man will make the long and perilous journey to the South Polar Axis, to fulfill the commandment of his God.

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  • Robert Thompson

    ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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