Collin's Reviews > Mainspring

Mainspring by Jay Lake
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's review
Jan 25, 2011

it was ok

The reason why I bought Mainspring to begin with was kinda odd. I was just looking over the Sci-Fi section in a bookstore when I saw a familar cover. I've seen Stephen Hunt's The Court of the Air around for a little while, but never bothered to figure out what it was about. Upon reading the cover I read a blurb by one Jay Lake and curiously went to see if the store had any of his books. Indeed they did, so I picked up the one mentioned on the cover of Hunt's book and read what it was about.

Basically, there's this apologetics arguement called The Watchmaker Argument. Goes like this: you're walking through the woods and suddenly you find a watch lying on the ground. You pick it up and admire it's craftsmanship, open it to see it's beautiful inner workings and say, "My, what a wonderfully made watch. Surely it had an ingenious designer" You continue on, then come upon a lovely tree. Standing in its shade, you smile up at it and say, "My, this tree is rather good at giving shade, and in late summer will bear much fruit. Surely, such a fantastically complex thing had the greatest designer of all to create it."

tl;dr Basically everything that looks designed must have had a designer.

And this arguement is pretty compelling. You know, if you don't think about it past 2 seconds. After that 2 seconds, however, you realize why you knew the watch had a designer: there is no example anywhere of nature creating a watch, but we do know of natural means to create the many variety of trees out there. There are other problems with it too, but that's enough I think.

Anyway, what Mainspring is about is taking that arguemet and say, "Well, what if the world actually looked like it was manufactured; the workings of the solar system move actually via clockwork rather than being treated as a metaphor?" Basically, the story world takes place on an Earth that rolls along an orbital track made of impossibly large brass gears. An obviously designed world, with all it's theological ramifications. This is the setting.

...Already I was pretty tempted on reading the book, but then I started reading the reviews. One proclaimed, "This is blasphemy at its finest." So yeah, I had to buy it.

The story is this: Our hero, a clockmaker's apprentice named Hethor, is visted by the brasswork automaton of the angel Gabriel. Hethor is given the task to find the Key Perilous to wind up the mainspring of the earth, which is winding down. This adventure takes him all over the world, and even into it. Already this is sounding better than the claustrophobic Boneshaker!

Well...much like the mainspring of Jay Lake's earth, the story comes in starts and spurts. It doesn't really drag, but rather will be going at a fairly decent pace for 20-30 pages, then in just 2-3 pages something dreadfully important will happen that dramatically shifts the story, jarring you in more of a 'Huh?' way than a 'Whoa!' way. For instance, there is a long period where Hethor is on an air ship, where not a lot happens, but we do get to see basically every square inch of it and talk to a few interesting sounding characters--just for Hethor to then get kidnapped by flying, sword wielding savages, taken to a Chinese temple where he learns about the nature of the Southern Hemisphere, travel over the equatorial wall (the gear teeth of the earth), fall off the other side when he's randomly betrayed by his guide, and then lands safely at the fortress of his enemy whom he throws into the gears of the earth (not really a spoiler, trust me) in about the same amount of time it took us to explore the ship. And this is about the middle of the book.

Another problem I have is Lake's use of repetition. Hethor, while exploring an abandoned, cliff clinging city, finds a gold tablet in a room he already explored and was empty before. It's written in a language he doesn't understand so he stores it in his cabin on ship. Then he gets kidnapped, leaving the tablet behind. Then he finds another one while crossing the gear teeth--then looses that one when he falls. Then he finds yet another one, and this one he keeps for the rest of the journey.

Why? Why the other two tablets? Its not like he learned anything from those two, he only ever understood the text when he got the third one, and even then it wasn't with any code breaking or anything like that.

There are a few more repetitions like this, but that's the best, clearist example.

However, my main problem with Mainspring is, with a few exceptions in a few places, I wasn't really drawn into this world. Maybe authors like Neil Stephenson have spoiled me, surrounding me in their worlds by lingering in this room, or this stage, the scents, the sense of space, leaving me with a feeling that I'm really there, or at least allowing me to really see, feel and experience where those authors take me.

Yeah, Jay Lake doesn't really do that well.

What's worse is that he sometimes gives us scenes that Hethor just passes over (literally), that we see only a glimpse of, but I can tell you I would find vastly more interesting than what was currently happening to him! There was a scene where Hethor was being carried by the winged savages, and upon looking down saw a small English force battling with colossal crystal and brass clockwork beasts on a sloping and crumbling landscape. We only get about a page to see all that before Hethor moves on. Aw, come on! I want to see that! Why did he have to see that? Why did we have to know about it?! In the end it had no bearing on the plot!

All in all, this story feels like it should have been longer; places were rushed that shouldn't've been rushed. Things happened that could've been left out; other things should have lasted longer, or have gone somewhere else.

However, it wasn't all bad. I like the idea of the world, still, and the airships we were still pretty cool, he obviously put a lot of thought in tose, or at least the first one. I love it how in a world that is so obviously designed by an intelligence, the Rational Humanists are the dogmatic ones, calling for celestial Clockmakers they have no proof of instead of fixing the problem themselves.

The story is definitely steampunk, but it also reminds me a lot of Robet E. Howard and Philip Jose Farmer when we start to travel to the strange places like the Wall and the Southern Hemisphere. There's the impossibly large city clinging to the face of a cliff; the bronze sword carrying winged savages; the 'hairy people' who are basically short, fuzzy humans who travel down a giant-croc infested river; and a city that makes itself look human inhabited during the day, to reveal its Lovecraftian monsters as the sun sets, just to name a few things.

Hethor himself follows the typical coming of age storyline, but it's presented nicely.

Favorite out of context quote: "The young males have found your entrance."

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