I recently (more like finally) finished The Mechanical, an alternate history novel written by Ian Tregillis.
The Mechanical is the first of three books in a series known as The Alchemy Wars. In this novel’s universe, the Dutch are the world’s super-power, having mastered alchemy and keeping order with various models of mechanical men, known as “clakkers”. France is the only nation to really oppose the Dutch, and do so with chemicals.
Most of the story takes place in New Amsterdam (North America), with smaller parts taking place in Europe.
We are introduced early on to three characters: Jax, a clakker (mechanical servitor); Berenice, a French spymaster; and Visser, a Catholic priest working for Berenice undercover in Dutch territory. As the book winds along, it’s clear that the main characters in the story are Berenice and Jax, with Visser serving a secondary yet important purpose.
As characters go, both Berenice and Jax have a well-defined character arc, each of them complete within the novel with a beginning, middle, and end. Visser’s story doesn’t really reach a conclusion in this novel, which leads me to believe that he’ll have a more significant role in the next novel in the series (The Rising, also published in 2015).
I found that I didn’t really like Visser, though. He was somewhat cowardly and really thought highly of himself and his role. I imagine I felt about him the way I was supposed to – he was definitely very self-aggrandizing, to the point where he wasn’t very good at his job as a spy.
Beyond those three characters though, there wasn’t a lot of depth. I give The Mechanical a grade of B- for characters.
Story & Writing
I mentioned at the top that I “finally” finished reading The Mechanical last week…this is because I started reading it over a year ago. The story builds up very slowly at the beginning. This is a 400+ page book, but I think it could benefit from some culling.
Part of the problem is that Tregillis has to do a lot of world building to start the novel, because you need to be able to see how everything works AND understand how the Dutch took and remain in power. But the downside to this is that it progresses very slowly in the first half.
Once we get into the second half, and especially in the last third, the pace really picks up. I think this part of the book is a better demonstration of Tregillis’ skill as a writer, because his pages aren’t being spent giving us long scenes of exposition.
Overall I like the aesthetics presented in the book. It’s always neat to get a peak at alternative histories, and this one is very well thought out. I do appreciate that things weren’t spelled out, but I could still understand the background. The writing was a bit to “gratuitous” at times but generally, it’s good. I give The Mechanical a B- for Story and Writing.
While I really enjoyed the last third of the book, the first two thirds really didn’t do it for me. Normally, a “long” book for me takes a few months to slog through. This one took a year, and I stopped to read other things in between. I can’t in good conscience give The Mechanical a strong rating.
On GoodReads, I gave it 3/5 stars. Keeping with the letter grades I’ve been giving in this blog post, The Mechanical deserves a C+; a good read for parts of it, with strong main characters, but it really drags and feels like a chore to read in many other parts.
Coming up this week on the blog: a look at Paul Feig’s online TV show, Other Space.