Liz Bourke reviews Ian Tregillis

The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis (Orbit 978-0-316-24800-6, $17.00, 480pp, tp) March 2015.After his debut trilogy, the Milkweed Triptych, I think it’s safe to say that Ian Tregillis is a writer with a reputation for the bleak and unnerving, but with a reputation for talent, as well. The Mechanical is his fifth novel, after 2013’s standalone Something More Than Night. It’s the opening volume in a new series, and it lives up to Tregillis’ reputation – both parts of it.

The Mechanical opens in the Binnenhof in the Hague, at the site of a public execution. It’s immediately clear that this is a world deeply different from our own: not only is the Hague the seat of a Dutch Empire instead of a Republic (with a queen instead of a Staten-Generaal), but it is an empire whose inhabitants possess mechanical servitors – Clakkers – who are self-aware but constrained from free will by the alchemy and magic that the Guild of Clockmakers puts into their making. We’re introduced to the Clakkers from the point of view of one of their own, Jax, who’s present – despite the geas that compel him – because he wants to witness the execution of several French agents and, more importantly, a rogue Clakker – one of the legendary few who attain free will and flee.

‘‘Clockmakers lie’’ are the rogue Clakker’s dying words.

But – as we come to see – in The Mechanical, everyone lies. The Clockmakers and the Dutch, the Clakkers, and perhaps most especially the Catholic French, whose small besieged territory in New France (somewhere in Canada) is the last holdout against the mighty Dutch, and whose papist doctrine of Free Will – even for mechanicals – is anathema to the Clockmakers. In the Hague, the conscience of priest and undercover French spy Luuk Visser drives him into the very heart of the Clockmakers’ power to commit acts for which he will pay a terrible personal price. While in Marseilles-in-the-West, infamous spymaster Talleyrand – Beatrice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord – deceives her monarch in the cause of fighting the Dutch, and is deceived in her turn, with bloody and disastrous consequences.

As Jax finds himself suddenly, astonishingly, possessed of free will and Visser finds himself deprived of it, Beatrice – exiled from New France, no longer Talleyrand – sets out on a personal quest for vengeance deep into Dutch territory. If she can fuck up the Dutch war effort along the way, so much the better.

Tregillis screws his characters’ lives up in interestingly horrible ways. The Mechanical is a touch on the gruesome side in parts: if detailed descriptions of eye injuries bother you, or non-consensual brain surgery makes your stomach turn over, you should probably know going in that these are things that occur in The Mechanical, and they might not be the most gruesome things to take place.

The Mechanical is an excellent novel. Truly excellent: I have rarely found myself this gripped by a book which I began knowing full well there could be no happy outcome. (However I did distract myself by wanting to nitpick the logistics of a mechanised workforce: where are all the poor people and what are they doing now? And, for that matter, what happened to everything that wasn’t French or Dutch?) At the climactic points, I had to pause and walk away for moments at a time, because the intensity of the tension became nerve-wrackingly hard to bear. Tregillis has an excellent eye for characterisation, and a master’s grasp of how to build tension to a breaking point: the sheer narrative drive here, the way in which the storylines of the three point-of-view characters support and reinforce the tension in each other, is a thing of beauty.

I can’t escape the feeling that it’s shaping up as a long arc tragedy – in the classic sense of tragedy – for all of its protagonists, but it is immensely well done. I’m very much on board to see what happens next.

Even though it’s probably going to horrify me more.

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