Fiction Reviews

The Mechanical

(2015) Ian Tregilis, Orbit, £8.99, pbk, 441pp, ISBN 978-0-356-50232-8


Every time a new batch of books arrives there is always one that stands out. It usually is not the one I expect, and it certainly by rights should not have been a steampunky sounding thing called The Mechanical. Yet there it was. An absolute delight, all the more so because it was so surprising.

The book is set in an alternate 1926 where the Dutch Empire rules most of the world, the French are corralled near the St Lawrence river and the Pope is in exile in Quebec. There is no United States, no Great Britain and no serious threat to Dutch superiority. The reason is that Holland, centuries before, mixed alchemy with clockwork and produced sentient mechanical men, bound to obedience by pain-backed compulsions, or ‘geas’, weaved into their consciousnesses.

The French have not given up, though. Berenice, inheritor of the title and role of ‘Talleyrand’, attempts to unravel the secrets of the rogue mechanical locked in her dungeon in Marseilles-in-the-West, hoping to discover why some mechanicals can gain free will.

Rogues are rare: officially they do not exist. Officially mechanicals have no souls, no humanity. But when a servitor, Jax, finds he is no longer bound by painful geas and able to exercise free will, the story moves swiftly into an action packed exploration of the nature of humanity, free will, compulsion and the soul. Protestant Dutch are up against Catholic French, and their differences vividly colours the book. That and Tregillis’ fantastic characters: the very human Mechanical Jax, the French spy and cleric Pastor Visser, the scheming Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Perigord and many others, who are frequently not what they seem.

One of the book’s strengths is that despite its heavy philosophical underpinnings – Spinoza has a central role to play, for instance – this novel never flags. It is full of movement, packed with action and has an engaging plot, full of mysteries and twists and turns. The three point of view characters – Berenice, Jax and Visser, all experience profound and lasting change and their three synchronised tales weave around the central plot in an elegant construction.

The Mechanical is the first in a series, which is just as well because even though the story concludes nicely, a sneaky epilogue sets up some very juicy loose plot threads for next time. In the meantime, there’s the author’s Milkweed Triptych to catch up on: set in an alternative 1939 in which the Nazis have soldiers with superpowers, if it’s only half as promising as The Mechanical (and reviews suggest it is much more than that), then Bitter Seeds and its sequels will do nicely until The Mechanical’s follow up is published. Needless to say, highly recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

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