I’m not really sure what I think of this one. It’s a strange sort of book, managing to be bits of several things all at once, while being fully none of them. It’s got a concept I’d expect to find in hard SF, but with a setting more fit for steampunk*… and yet the plot and general atmosphere feels far more like fantasy. The setting has that sense of mismatch too, and the characters. It’s all a bit of a muddle, and I honestly can’t decide if I like how the pieces fit together.
The idea is that, in an alternate history, the Dutch gained superiority on the world stage through the use of alchemy and clockwork, by building mechanical servitors, who fought their battles and acted as their servants. We’re several hundred years on for that, seeing the French monarchy in exile still struggling against the Dutch power. More importantly, we follow one of the clockwork robots, and its struggle for free will against its programming.
See what I mean about the SF concept?
The way the robots (sorry, Clakkers) are written is very strongly reminiscent of Asimov – they have their “geasa” and “metageasa”, their inviolable rules, programmed into them and to disobey is impossible. These rules, while not the same as Asimov’s laws, and never strictly codified for the reader, do bear a more than passing similarity. But they’re not SF robots. They’re clockwork and… some very vaguely handwaved “alchemy” that seems basically to be magic in the guise of smelly chemicals. Seriously, I am tempted to go back and count how many times Tregillis compares the smell to skunks. He clearly has a thing going on there. There’s also a lot of thought put into whether the clakkers have souls, and how this relates to their state as machines and how they’re built and so on. SPOILERS: it is also explored when they do unexplained science on a person, to render him, like a clakker, subject to the geasa and metageasa of their robotdom. At one point (MORE SPOILERS), free will in a clakker is granted simply by touching it with a mysterious bit of glass. They talk a bit about how it was made by a famous lens-maker and how it relates to the glass inside the clakkers’ heads… but at the same time, it’s very much a maguffin. And so I’m not sure how I feel about the concept. I don’t like Asimov**, so taking the hard SF edge of him… well… it has actually made the whole thing a lot more palatable for me. But at the same time, I do think that not committing to being a coherent single thing has lost the book something.
Similarly, I could never get a clear feeling of when the book was meant to be set. I think, based on the dates it gives, we’re in the late 20th century? No, scratch that, I just looked up Huygens (this continuity’s miraculous alchemist), and extrapolated from there. We’re early 20th cenury, in fact. But it’s so hard to tell from the book. You have moments when you wonder if it’s meant to be present day (mostly prompted by architectural styles – there’s a house the author describes that sounds like it belonged on Grand Designs in about 2005)… but then he describes clothing, and I think we’re in the mid-nineteenth century… there are people in bonnets, more than once. And for all that a character is disgruntled that the French court dresses like its ancestors before the Dutch took over… them wearing seventeenth century French clothing makes it feel older. And… well… it feels implausible.
Actually, this is my biggest dig at the book. I know it’s clockpunk and I should be busy suspending my disbelief, but a lot of things like the historicity and setting and so on just twang at my nerves. Especially the fact that the alternate history he’s built is done in such broad brush strokes that there are ill-thought-out details everywhere. It’s messy. The way the technology has advanced in some areas but not others, the way politics has happened, the way fashion and social mores and just… everything. So many details just don’t sit right, even if you accept the setting wholeheartedly. And it never stopped bugging me.
And, when I started reading, I thought that that meant I’d get to the end and I’d hate the book for all of that.
But, rather surprisingly, I don’t.
I think I actually quite enjoyed it? Jax, the clakker, is a very pleasant character to read (albeit one prone to naive or trite musings occasionally***). And the writing style is much less intrusive than other steampunk things I’ve read (I’m sorry, but I’m treating steampunk and clockpunk as functionally equivalent… they totally are and the distinction is one of pedantry alone). I think a lot of this is because it isn’t set in pseudo-Victorian England, so no one speaks like they’re in a cheaply made costume drama (and it being set in not-Victorian-England is a wonderful diversion from the norm). The dialogue is somewhere approaching natural, which makes the whole thing a lot more bearable. I’m less fond of most of the humans, but it’s a trilogy and there definitely feels space for growth for both Talleyrand, the spymistress, and Visser, the priest. Likewise, the political shenanigans felt distinctly clunky and clumsy – not the full political intrigue of a good political fantasy… but part way there… again not sure what it wants to be – but like they too could definitely grow into something with a bit more finesse. Mostly, the plot drives on with enough speed and lightness that you’re willing to forgive a lot for the sake of it being a fun ride. There’s plenty of action, and the action is well written, and you want the protagonist to succeed. That’ll excuse and awful lot, I find.
Another gripe occurs to me. It also does what a lot of these books do too – and bear with me on this one – it paints a weirdly utopian past where the sins of our own are not committed. There doesn’t appear to be much in the way of sexism, for instance, even in the early 20th century, and the little we hear about interaction with indigenous peoples of the new world is entirely peaceful. It’s not that I object to wanting the women of the 1900s to be treated as equals, for instance. That’s great. But I always find it uncomfortable reading this sort of thing where that does happen, because it feels like a convenient way to ignore that things back then weren’t great. A way to write a problematic setting without having to deal with the problems. And glossing over them, making such a rosy world (even one with other problems) just… it doesn’t sit right with me. Write your futures without these problems, by all means… but acknowledge them in your pasts. If you want to condemn them, do! But don’t paint them over like they never happened. Somehow it feels like that cheapens it all. If nothing else, it lessens the realism of the setting, however grim that may be.
But this is a niggle of the genre, not the book in particular. And he’s not fallen into the trap too deeply. Tallyrand, while not experiencing institutional sexism per se, does see a little in the way of cultural sexism that feels far realer than a lot of what else happens in the book.
So, despite all my grumbling, I definitely enjoyed it enough that I’ll read the second one, and to put back into doubt my decision that I definitely don’t like steampunk books. But I’m not sure I’d ever say it was a stellar work of literature. It’s too disparate, to unsure of what it’s trying to be, for that. But it was fun, and distracting, and incredibly easy to read. If I were prone to scoring things, this would be getting a solid 7 out of 10, with the strong possibility that the sequel could be pretty decent.
*However keen the author is to specify that this isn’t steampunk, when he makes a very pointed comment early on about how steam power has been investigated and disregarded in this universe.
**I’m sure I get some SFF reader demerits for that. I don’t care. I will one day reread one of the Foundation books for blog purposes and I promise you, I will be way grumpier than I was for Dune, though for very similar “what do people even see in this??” reasons.
*** “Clakkers carried complex geasa by dint of alchemy; humans carried heavy obligations too, but called them culture. Society.”