I fell for Tregillis’ unique stylings when his first major novel, Bitter Seeds, was introduced to me. I found his writing style, prose, creativity, and plot progression to be incredibly enjoyable, and his characters shone. However, with those books, I honestly felt they all hovered in the “4-star” area, where they were fun, had tons of potential, but just lacked a bit of polish and “glue”, so to speak, to pull them together into greatness.
However, with The Mechanical, Tregillis has pulled all these pieces together into one cohesive package that is simply thrilling.
The Mechanical is an alternate history, one that obviously shares many similarities to our world and history, however with many very large twists. The book is based in the early 1900s, 250 years after the Dutch Empire and the Brasswork Throne took world control, lead by their army of sentient robots, called Clakkers. Dutch Scientist Christiaan Hyugens helps imbue the robots with intelligence, an alchemical and magical secret process, one held tightly by the Dutch at The Forge, the home and source of all the clakkers. There are varying types of clakkers, from servitors, who are peon-level mechanicals, to assist in tasks, building, etc. There are also military-grade clakkers, those to fight, kill with precision, speed and strength that a human cannot match.
The Dutch, after years of uncontested rule, are facing a growing opposition, from the French Papists, who have a large spy network in the Dutch lands, attempting to undercut the Dutch, disable their clakkers, and end their rule.
These mechanicals are all sentient – they think, they process, they communicate, they learn and adapt. They have feelings and emotions, albeit limited. What they lack, however, is free will. This is an overriding theme of the entire book – what free will means, it’s importance, and philosophical looks at the various factors at play. The mechanicals are controlled by the geas, a compulsion to follow the orders given by their human masters. There are varying levels of the geas – basic direct instructions, that must be followed exactly. Metageas, which are overriding commands that all clakkers are compelled to follow. This geas manifests in an almost physical pain – almost like a mental attack by a mind flayer or something like that, it is a crushing internal force that can only be resisted a short time, before the mechanicals are forced to give in and follow their commands exactly. Their lives are spent in constant avoidance of the pain and suffering caused by the geas.
However, among clakkers and humans alike, are tales of rogue clakkers, those who somehow have their geas disabled, are able to think and make decisions for themselves, who are no longer controlled by their human overlords. Jax is one such clakker, a servitor model over 100 years old, having spent more than a human lifetime serving, suffering, stuck. He finds himself inadvertently crossing paths with Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, a French spymaster, while on a ship – where Jax is unknowingly being used to transport intelligence across the Atlantic.
While on this transport, tragedy strikes Berenice, and at the same time, Jax is touched by an artifact that somehow removes his geas, giving him free will; and simultaneously, making him the Dutch’s most wanted fugitive. Berenice, meanwhile, is fueled by pain and rage, and sets out to undercut the Dutch in revenge. We subsequently meet Visser, a Catholic spy living among the Dutch, who is subsequently discovered and subjected to a torture of his own – one which exposes a lot of the secrets behind the mechanicals, the geas, and the true power at the hands of the Guild.
The varying layers of intrigue in the book are astounding – three distinct storylines, independent yet intertwined, and each filling in holes in the story, filling in background, giving an understanding of how all the various aspects of the world work. Things are an onion, peeled back a layer at a time, rather than presented in an infodump or bland blocks of background text. It’s skillfully done, keeps the plot moving at a rapid pace throughout the book, and prevents any periods of disinterest. I was suitably enthralled at all times in the book – around the 30% mark, things do slow down a tad, but not nearly as much as they do in some other novels. Around the halfway point, things really pick up, and it’s incredible from there on out.
Jax, in particular, is an incredible character. His internal struggles, his fight for self-identity, and his plight as he runs from his rulers is as moving as it is exciting. The themes of identity, free will, slavery, oppression and the rights of sentient creatures are all handled very deftly by Tregillis. The intense pain, PTSD, sense of loss – all the human emotions felt by Berenice are also handled excellently, as were the intense changes Visser went through, and his terror was palpable.
The worldbuilding was, well, it was something else. The creativity involved in this world was staggering. It’s not as though alternate histories, sentient robots, or the Dutch being evil (lol) are new concepts – however, Tregillis’ version is very well crafted, very fleshed out, very well described. I felt like I was part of the world, that time period, that technology, that struggle. He describes things without an overabundance of flowery filler, without describing every minute detail – yet he also paints a vivid picture, lets imagination fill out the tapestry, but gives you a color by numbers template to do it with. It was satisfying.
The ending was exciting and heartbreaking at once, even with it being left open-ended to address the future novels in the series. The ending all the characters find couldn’t have gone better for me, and I left the book excited about it, feeling suitably impacted by the difficult parts, and suitably happy with the outcome. This book was the Tregillis I have been waiting for after the Milkweed Triptych – finally putting the pieces together, hitting his stride in almost every aspect, finding that “glue” he needed to make a cohesive, complete, and exciting novel.
I loved it.