The Liberation by Ian Tregillis
The Liberation (2016)is the concluding novel to Ian Tregillis’ fantastic ALCHEMY WARS trilogy, and he wraps it all up with a book as strong in action and deep in thought as its predecessors, making this series one of my favorites of recent years and one I highly recommend. If you haven’t read the first two (and you absolutely should fix that error), you’ll probably want to stop here as there will be a few unavoidable spoilers for both The Mechanical and The Rising. And since I’m assuming, therefore, that you’ve read those books, I won’t bother with recapping basic plot points
The Liberation’s story picks up where book two, The Rising, ended, with the breaking of the Dutch Empire’s siege of New Marseilles (Quebec) and the freeing of the New World Clakkers from their alchemical programming that forced them to submit to their masters’ orders. Some of the mechanicals have simply walked away from their former servitude and all conflict, wanting nothing to do with humans, either the French or the Dutch. Others, called “Reapers,” seek fatal vengeance instead, making no distinction between the Dutch who made/enslaved them and the French who (if unintentionally) freed them. And yet another faction, led more than their unwilling “savior” figure Daniel, chooses to work with the French on a mission to a secret Dutch base in the north to maybe learn more about their true origins. The north is also home to Queen Mab, the only-somewhat-sane mechanical leader who, like the Reapers, desires vengeance on all humanity, but who is also a master tactician whose aim is far greater than picking off the occasional human in the wilderness. Meanwhile, the “freedom plague” has reached the continent and the heart of the Dutch Empire, with the Clockmaker’s Guild facing a physical and metaphysical conflict — the first a bloody revolt by “rogue” Clakkers and the second the realization that their supposedly unfeeling/unthinking slaves may in fact be self-aware.
As with the other books, Tregillis provides us with alternating POVs. Berenice, the recklessly brilliant (or is it brilliantly reckless?) and spectacularly foul-mouthed French spymaster; Anastasia, head of the Guild’s secret police; and Daniel, seeking to avoid the messiah label the Clakkers wish to ascribe to him. Daniel takes a bit of a lesser role in The Liberation compared to the earlier books even as he continues to struggle with two core concepts. One is his recognition of the burden of trying to find an ethical way in a world filled with cruelty:
What they did… made me realize something. We who are stronger and faster and more resilient have an obligation, a terrible obligation, to protect those who can’t defend themselves. There’s evil in the world, Berenice, and it chooses its victims indiscriminately.
The other is equally onerous — what to do with newfound free will, which he believes is:
a treasure… But as with many fairy tales, the granting of the extravagant wish came with a dire price… The freedom to make his own choices, to chart his own course, had led to nothing but fear, flight, and peril.
Ethics and responsibility also lie at the core of Anastasia and Berenice’s stories, two strong willed and supremely amoral women whose stories somewhat parallel each other, with another amoral female — Mab — providing a third leg of the narrative stool though she does not get her own POV. All have been willing to do whatever it takes for what they perceive as right, even if “whatever” includes murder, torture, and worse (yes, worse). Berenice, recalling one horrid act, thinks “of course, it didn’t stop her from doing what must be done,” while Mab at a later point declares, “I am a pragmatist. I do what must be done to make a better world.” Throughout The Liberation, though, both Anastasia and Berenice are forced to come face to face with some unwanted revelations about their past actions, as well as deal with the horrifying consequences.
Tregillis deftly handles the subtle complexities of having such morally ambiguous characters at the core of the story, managing to present them in such fashion that we both recoil from their acts even as we empathize with them as people. Berenice especially has been a wonderfully rich character through the trilogy and her already full characterization only deepens here. One way in which Tregillis creates some compassion for her is her fully-felt grief over the loss of her husband back in The Mechanical. Too often such deaths either are quickly forgotten or become simply plot devices — motivation for action/vengeance for instance — empty of any feeling. Here, though, we the readers are never allowed to forget her husband’s death, just as the character would never forget it. His memory pops up when she sees a sailboat her husband would have loved, a ruin he would have mourned. None of these little moments serve as impetus for vengeance; what they do is make Berenice a more fully realized character and also, as noted, allow us to feel for her despite our revulsion for some of her actions.
Action is handled as masterfully. The novel begins with a bang — the assault by the Clakkers on the Guild — and if other action scenes aren’t quite as large scale they’re no less vivid. But as good as the action is, as gripping as the plot is or as effortless and sharp the prose, what sets the ALCHEMY WARS apart is the richness of character and, even more, the way the characters, and thus the readers, wrestle with the serious, big ideas that lie at its center. The corruption of slavery. Free will. Identity. The obligations to our fellow beings. Whether the ends justify the means.
The Liberation is a page-turner of a book that makes you think as much as it entertains, and the same can be said of the series as a whole. I’m sorry to see it end.
The Alchemy Wars — (2015- ) Publisher: 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.
Well, you’ve convinced me that I have to read this series.
I waited until you reviewed the entire trilogy to make a decision, and now I know I need to read it!
I think you both would love it.
I tried reading the first and unfortunately it ended up on my DNF shelf because I didn’t like any of the mains. I know that isn’t a big deal for most readers but for me it is a deal breaker.