I thoroughly enjoyed Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical, the first book in his THE ALCHEMY WARS series, and I’m happy to say that book two, The Rising, continues the story in strong fashion, showing not a whit of sophomore slump.
The series is set in an alternative history world where Christiaan Huygens’ discoveries led to the Netherlands dominating the world via a mechanical army of “Clakkers.” The sole resistance is led by the French in North America’s “New France,” (old France has already been conquered) whose capital, Marseilles-in-the-West (Montreal) is under siege.
As with The Mechanical, Tregillis splits the story of The Rising into three POVs. The first is Jax, the escaped Clakker we met in book one and one of the few of his brethren to achieve free will (all, however, are sentient). Having escaped to North America, Jax seeks the fabled land of Queen Mab, said to be a colony of free-willed Clakkers up in the northern wilderness. The French spymaster Berenice de Mornay, whom we saw exiled from Marseilles-in-the West thanks to some fatal miscalculations, manages her own escape from the Dutch, taking with her a potentially world-shaking bit of information regarding Clakker programming. Finally, we get a grittier from-the-ground viewpoint from Hugo Longchamp, the wonderfully foul-mouthed sergeant in charge of leading the defense of Marseilles-in-the West. All three characters are fully, vividly developed in nuanced fashion. All have moments of inspired courage, all make mistakes, and there are more than a few occurrences where you aren’t really sure you’re happy to be rooting for a particular character. Or at least, you’re a bit uncomfortable in the moment with their actions. And while Jax is clearly the “least gray” amongst the three main characters (he stands out, for instance, in his wrenching reaction to killing, even in self-defense), Tregillis is careful to show that being sentient, Clakkers can share some of the same ethical flaws as humans. Side characters, despite not having the same page time, are given the same amount of attention with regard to developing them enough so that the reader cares what happens with them.
The plot is compelling throughout, with a nice mix of action/suspense scenes, including escape attempts, chase scenes, fight scenes, and one-on-one duals of wit. Tregillis shows a deft hand as well in moving between high-pitched action and moments of quieter introspection (these usually via Jax) and in knowing when it’s time for some much-needed humor (usually via Longchamp). The ending doesn’t come as much of a surprise, but that little bit of predictability is more than outweighed by the novel’s strengths.
Beyond the basics of plot and character, THE ALCHEMY WARS raises meaty existential issues, and I appreciate that Tregillis doesn’t shy from spending some page time digging into these ideas, allowing the book to slow down for some discussion of ethics and identity, as when Jax ponders his actions in killing to save himself:
Was there a God who punished murderers? And if so, does He punish rogue mechanicals like Jax, or only soulful humans? And what of his soldier kin, those who would be powerless to do anything but kill Frenchmen — were they sinners? Had Jax somehow retrieved his own soul when he attained freedom from the geasa [programming]? Or was he still just a hollow shell hated by his creators, disregarded by their Creator, and exempt from the bonds of human social conventions?
It’s moments like these that, cough, raise The Rising beyond the level of merely a good book to an excellent one. Based on the first two books, I can’t wait to see where this thoughtful, highly engaging series takes me next. Highly recommended.
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.