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The Alchemy Wars #1

The Mechanical

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My name is Jax.

That is the name granted to me by my human masters.

I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world - and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.

I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.

But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.

I am a slave. But I shall be free.

440 pages, Paperback

First published March 10, 2015

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Ian Tregillis

24 books1,065 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 722 reviews
Profile Image for Mogsy (MMOGC).
2,034 reviews2,604 followers
July 3, 2015
5 of 5 stars at The BiblioSanctum http://bibliosanctum.com/2015/03/09/b...

Like many fans of Ian Tregillis, I was first introduced to his work with the Milkweed Triptych, a series about British warlocks versus Nazi super-soldiers in an alternate history of World War II. Then In 2013 I picked up Something More Than Night, a futuristic urban fantasy-type metaphysical hard-boiled detective noir story about angels. That book was a bit of a departure to say the least, but it also solidified Tregillis in my mind as a talented visionary, definitely a rising star to watch.

Now Tregillis returns to alternate history in The Mechanical, outdoing himself once again with an inventive blend of mind-blowing fantasy, history, and existential philosophy. This time we see humble French metallurgy pitted against the demonic alchemy of the Dutch, in a story set in the early 1900s. Back in the 17th century in this alternate timeline, prominent mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens changed the face of the world by using magic to develop an army of clockwork automatons capable of intelligent thought but are enslaved to their masters through a series of geasa. This breakthrough discovery ensured the survival of the Calvinist Dutch Empire, for very few found themselves capable of standing against a legion of these tireless and utterly obedient mechanical men called “Clakkers.”

So three hundred years later, the Dutch are the dominant power with only a small remnant of French Papists still fighting to oppose their rule. The book begins with the executions of a group of French spies, witnessed through the eyes of one of our main protagonists, a Clakker servitor named Jax. Across the ocean where what’s left of the French Court has been exiled to the New World, our other protagonist is spymistress Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, who is understandably vexed that almost all her agents back in the Netherlands have been caught and killed. Not long after, Jax is unwittingly used to smuggle a dangerous piece of intel across the Atlantic, and then a fatal disaster strikes the French within the walls of Marseilles-in-the-West. Thus begins an incredible tale of deadly secrets and ruthless politics, as our two characters’ fates ultimately come together in their search for what they desire most – for Jax, the sweet taste of freedom, and for Berenice, the vengeance on those who took everything from her.

What can I say but I’m just completely awestruck by the world Tregillis has created here. I know I say that about every one of his novels, but it’s true. No one does alternate history quite like the way he does, always bringing a fresh new twist by blending elements from multiple genres. He offers a whole new vision to steampunk in The Mechanical, presenting a heart-pounding tale of intrigue wrapped around a philosophical core which explores the subject of artificial intelligence and its consequences. The book will no doubt provide fertile ground for plenty of discussion, littered as it is with profound themes examining free will versus determinism, the nature of identity and the purpose of the individual, and at times it even dabbles lightly in religious theory.

Sounds delightfully cerebral, doesn’t it? But don’t let that fool you. True, The Mechanical will give you plenty of existential questions to mull over, but at its heart it is a gripping story brought to life by complex, engaging characters. There’s plenty of action and adventure that will get the blood pumping in your veins. Also, you can never let your guard down when reading a Tregillis novel. No one is ever truly safe (the unfortunate character of Father Luuk Visser can attest to that) and the author clearly has no qualms about taking his story into shocking, brutal territory. Tragedy and bloody violence can befall a character in a Tregillis novel at any time, something I discovered way back when I read Bitter Seeds, so it was a lesson I learned early.

Still, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I do adore Ian Tregillis’s writing for the very fact that his style is so well-suited for darker, more evocative stories. His prose is so tight and it always flows well with the narrative, not to mention he can also be ferociously detailed when he needs to be. He draws you in and makes you feel for his characters, so that everything that happens to them matters, even (or perhaps especially) when the shit massively hits the fan. I found The Mechanical less bleak than Milkweed, though fair warning: there are more than a few traumatizing scenes in this book. Then again, it sure didn’t stop me from madly devouring up its pages, and in fact I find myself even more invested when I know that anything can happen.

In short, The Mechanical is an excellent read, not to be missed by fans of alternate history fiction and steampunk. Even if you’re not into those genres, the mix of so many ideas and other elements from sci-fi and fantasy will surely make this worth checking out. Tregillis never fails to impress, and his writing and stories seem to be getting better with each novel. This book is truly unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and it’s my favorite work of his to date. I can’t wait to see what the next installment in The Alchemy Wars will bring.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,976 followers
February 10, 2017
For the greater portion of this novel, I was sitting pretty at three stars because no matter how much action-packed escapades and beautiful worldbuilding it may have been stuffed with, I was only pretty much interested in Jax. The other two were only interesting in spurts.

That is, until they actually met one another in the denouement, and then things really picked up for me and made me feel less like I had just *wanted* to love this novel without quite liking it. After that point, though, I loved it.

It's a shame that it took so long to get there.

The only exceptions to this was Visser's discourse on Free Will and Berenice's maiming. I liked both of them much better after all the shit got poured all over them, but alas, only so far. Oh, a little correction. I did *begin* liking Visser enough, but all that talk of martyrdom started getting under my skin in a bad way.

Of course, what made this novel shine was the beautifully thought-out world of 1926 after several hundred years of mechanical slaves had revolutionized and marginalized all but the most technologically savvy of the 18th century, leaving the Dutch and the French as the clear winners on the map of the world.

I've read Tregillis's Milkweed Triptych, so I know that the author's voice had changed fairly significantly between then and now, and I can applaud the attempt even if I was a little annoyed at the execution. There was a lot of detail and repetition of the steampunk feel that made me feel somewhat as if I was being shortchanged with the extra effort I needed to use to follow the story without glazed eyes.

I feel like it might only be me, but who knows? I kept wanting to be doing something else, even when I appreciated, intellectually, what Tregillis was doing.

I'm continuing the series because of the spectacularly strong finish, even if I wish that the finish had come by about the mid-point and then continued from *there* to some more interesting conclusion. Alas, the interesting conclusion has got to be in book two, I think. :)

Profile Image for Kameron Hurley.
Author 101 books2,364 followers
March 24, 2015
Everyone should be reading everything by Ian Tregillis. Everyone. Everything.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,264 reviews222 followers
February 14, 2016
Man I'm sick of great big books published in serial form. This isn't a trilogy. Trilogies are three novels. The format of a novel is beginning, middle, end. This is all beginning with a major event at the end that doesn't change anything for the characters and leaves great gobs of story to come.

The story itself follows three PoV characters through an alternate world where the Dutch empire became the dominant force in Europe and the American colonies through it's use of alchemically derived mechanicals called clakkers. The only country to even mildly challenge them is France via it's mastery of chemistry, but even then the country only exists in exile as New France where Canada would be in our world. The PoV characters are Jax, a Mechanical, through which we get the idea of why these self-aware machines serve the Dutch and what happens when they don't. Also Visser, a French spy in Holland who is under threat of exposure and his boss, the French spymaster Berenice.

Getting back to my frustration with this style of story, the three characters don't even appear together in the book, and they barely interact separately either.

As to the story itself, yep pretty good. The world-building is excellent, but obviously there's huge elements of history that we're not being exposed to that should be part of the story in a future 1926. Geopolitics in the early 20th century being what it was, this book seems very insular to a small part of Europe and the Americas. Hopefully this is just a feature of the preoccupation of the PoV characters and I hope we'll see more in the next one.

Jax has an interesting journey here, but the journeys of Berenice and Visser are very dark, and by any estimate about to get a lot darker in the next one.
Profile Image for Matthew.
381 reviews137 followers
August 26, 2015
My name is Jax.

That is the name granted to be by my human masters.

I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world - and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.

I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.

But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.

I am a slave. But I shall be free.

I have watched the rise of Ian Tregillis with great interest. I was first introduced to his work via his Milkweed Triptych books, a trilogy that included English warlocks and Nazi super soldiers pitting their wits against each other as the war raged around them. To say I was smitten with these books would be an understatement. I bloody adored them and their action filled pseudo-Lovecraftican weirdness! So when I heard that Tregillis was writing another alternate history with steampunk themes called The Mechanical, I celebrated, and then immediately ordered a copy for myself.

And boy, I am glad I did!

I loved so many things about this book that it would take me an age or two to completely deconstruct and explain my thoughts on it, so I will try and keep it simple. This book is an absolute stunning read, and Tregillis is one of the most underrated writers in the world today.

The Mechanical is set in an alternative universe where in the 17th century prominent scientist Christiaan Hyugens uses magic to develop an army of intelligent clockwork automatons that are bound (via a series of spells and bonds) to their masters. This breakthrough changes the face of history in Europe, with the Calvinist Dutch empire surviving and expanding rapidly whilst overthrowing their foes (who in their right mind would fight an army of automatons anyway?). The Mechanical takes place three hundred years after this, with Dutch still remaining the dominant power around the globe despite being opposed by French Papists, who are becoming more and more desperate as time passes.

The opening pages of the book set the tone. We are introduced to the first of the main protagonists of this story, an automaton called Jax, as he watches the execution of French spies. From this beginning Tregillis launches into a tale that combines themes from steampunk, spy novels, political thrillers, and philosophical tracts. Jax, following the execution of the French spy ring in the Netherlands, find himself unwittingly (when he is used to smuggle intelligence across the Atlantic) caught up in wide ranging events alongside the other protagonist of the book, French spymaster Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord. Their fates become further entwined as they attempt, amidst the growing chaos, to achieve what they want most our of their existence, freedom (Jax) and revenge (Berenice). Their relationship is truly one of the highlights of the book. I absolutely adored the character of Jax (and the Clakkers in general), and how he struggled with his growing humanity and the dilemma of free will amidst the sea of cold cruelty from humanity around him. Jax's tale was truly absorbing, and his inner monologue and existential crisis kept me glued to the pages as I read. Berenice was also a fascinating character, with the highs and lows of her life revealing a truly complex and layered individual whose main goal in life was one of vengeance throughout the story. As her complicated struggle with life grew more tense, so did Jax's existential crisis. Add to this a cast of other spies, clakkers, and religious and political figures ruthlessly building or trying to destroy an empire and you have the makings of an incredible story.

The world building in the Mechnical is also simply superb. As a history buff and teacher I was utterly enthralled by the world Tregillis created in this book. It was weird, wonderful, and filled with little tidbits that sent waves of contentment coursing through my brain. There is no one on earth (that I can immediately think of) that writes alternative history quite like Tregillis, and it is truly gripping when he flips history on its head and weaves themes from fantasy, steampunk, and philosophy into it. The world building alone makes this book worth buying, and then Tregillis adds a wonderful story that is filled with intrigue, action, and adventure to the melting pot to take it to that next level.

The pacing and timing was also superb, and I tore through it in two sittings over the space of a couple of days. Whenever I had a spare moment I found myself eying the book and considering whether or not I had the time to devour another chapter instead of doing the chores around the house. That for me is the sign of a great book. I was forever looking for my fix!

I literally cannot fault this book... and I seriously could ramble on and on for days and days about the little nuances that I loved in this book, such as the threading of the philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza (who existed in this alternative timeline!), or the clash between clockwork automatons and French applied chemistry. The Mechanical is simply an awesome tale (and the first in a series!), and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.

If you have a beating heart and functioning brain you will love this book.

5 out of 5 stars.

A review copy was provided.
Profile Image for Joel.
624 reviews231 followers
October 9, 2015
Full Review on my blog, Total Inability To Connect: https://totalinabilitytoconnect.wordp...

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.
Profile Image for Melissa.
46 reviews4 followers
September 27, 2015
I wanted to like this book. I really did. The concept is interesting and I think there's a good book in there somewhere. But it was buried under a layer of pretentious drivel and endless descriptions about things that don't really matter. This author makes George R. R. Martin seem concise. I wouldn't say that I have a poor vocabulary, but I had to look up a word every few pages. That really took me out of the story. Not to mention that parts of the story were so boring, I fell asleep after reading only a few pages. I forced myself to finish it, because I'm not a quitter... but I didn't really enjoy it.
Profile Image for Ryandake.
404 reviews48 followers
March 7, 2016
a book i can't finish.

i'm listening to the audiobook, am just a tad over halfway. and i am bored, bored, bored.

the book has an interesting set-up and the worldbuilding isn't bad--so what makes it un-finishable?

it's the long-windedness. there are super-long action scenes stuffed with filler--people thinking about all the stuff that won't work, for example, in the middle of fighting for their lives. you can safely ignore the audiobook for long stretches while you drive past something noisy or figure out a knitting problem, because not much is actually going to happen.

and the uninteresting conversations of a "philosophical" bent that might work for a high-schooler, but not for a person who's ever given any serious thought to such things (how do we know we have free will? because i can return the audiobook). speculations on whether god grants souls to.... i always have a problem with this stuff, because i'm an atheist.

the other thing is the annoyingness of bad writing at a sentence level. i've read worse, for sure (talking to you, Wool!), but seeing a word repeated four times in three sentences is just lazy.

and the last thing: plot holes. at one point our hero Jax because the very essence of a slave, mechanical or otherwise, is that nobody educates them. they don't have time to read for self-improvement. so how does Jax know anything about it? and has he ever seen a map? who taught him to read one? there are so many bits of learning that we take for granted, but they aren't something you just absorb, even if you're a 100-year-old clakker. somebody has to teach you.

so this is sort of a small thing, this educational matter, but it tells me that the author didn't think very hard about what it was really like day to day to be a slave. for him, slavery all boils down to free will. and in a lot of ways, this is not the most interesting issue of slavery. to me, the interesting stuff is how one enslaves oneself--how a despised population absorbs the disdain of their "betters", how they must fight for an always-shaky dignity, how they can despite it all reach out to others for liberation, or not.

in short, all the interesting psychological stuff just isn't there. and neither am i--i'm outta here.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,080 reviews108 followers
December 16, 2020
This is an alt-history science fantasy, the first in the trilogy. I’ve heard good things about the author, Ian Tregillis, and now I concur, his work is quite strong and interesting.

The idea behind the story is that Christiaan Huygens (most known for the invention of the pendulum clock) after meeting with Isaac Newton (who was interested in alchemy) was able to create a mechanical man, a golem or, as they are known in this work, a Clakker. A few centuries later (it is 1926) the Netherlands, which hold a royal monopoly over creating mechanicals is the greatest power. They much weaker counterpart is France, which had to evacuate to the New World after series of lost wars.

There are three main characters: [1] Jax, a Clakker, who is, as all Clakkers, is duty-bound to obey by his geas, but want to be free. [2] A secret French agent in the Netherlands, Pastor Luuk Visser (who is in reality a Pappist, believing that Clakkers have souls). [3] A French spy-master, who are now all called Talleyrand, Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord, vicomtesse de Laval, who seeks to undermine the Clakker-producing monopoly and save France.

I liked the way the theme of slavery and free will (and even a soul) is played. It was nice to see a positive depiction of a Catholic priest. The story is quite livid and well flowing, with a great finale. While the story reached an endpoint, the epilogue sets a background for the second volume, which also looks promising.

What I disliked it a fantasy element, under which I mean that Clakkers, like medieval golems don’t need a source of energy, they aren’t windup constructs, but beings with unlimited energy resource

Profile Image for Seon Ji (Dawn).
1,014 reviews219 followers
February 14, 2017

5 stars. (This is more or less notes to myself than a review)

(just raised my opinion and stars after further reflection 2-14-2017)

This book is written in the 3rd person, which surprised me since the GR summary gave me the impression it would be in 1st person.

The beginning was slow and full historical details and dates which almost put me off. The writing style was also a little difficult to get used to for me. It seemed at first stiff, formal and overly intellectual. Either I got used to it or it changed because about 35% in I was totally invested. It was worth sticking it out.

The character development was very good, which to me is most important in any read, followed by good conflict, this book had both.

A very quick summary:

This is steampunk. It takes place in 1926. Nobles have mechanical servants/slaves that are forged with a complusion to obey their commands or feel pain. They are called Clackkers. Some rare clackkers have gone rogue which means they don't feel pain for disobeying, essentially gaining free will. New France sympathizes with the clackkers and is against the Dutch who believe the clackkers are mere machines with no souls. When a catholic priest posing as a protestant, asks Jax, a clackker, to deliver an item to a friend, Jax becomes free..a rogue. Lots of stuff happen in between, and the book ends with the beginnings of a war between New France and the Dutch. (I said it would be quick.)

I wasn't so sure about Bernice. I hated her in the beginning, and when she disassembled Lillith against her will, I truly wanted to see her punished. Towards the end though my feelings for her only changed slightly, and I'm still not so sure about her true feelings regarding Clackkers. I suspect she is only in this for her own personal political reasons, but I suppose I'll find out more in the next book. I do hope Lillith returns, I really wanted more of her and was disappointed that her role in this book was so brief.

I totally love Jax. He made the book and I'm glad to see he survives.

The world building is fantastic but I felt the action scenes were overdone and too long.

Overall it was worth the 3.99 and I plan to read the rest in the series.

Safety-Graphic violence, torture is detailed, cursing, sex not detailed (this is NOT a romance read, but for my romance friends.... Bernice is married but her and her husband sleep with others for political gain only. They love each other. It didn't bother me because it's not a romance driven book)
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
April 13, 2015
Received to review via Netgalley

This one took me a weirdly long time to read, considering the fact that I don’t have major criticisms. I just… didn’t feel like reading it. In part that’s because of emotional stuff: tortures, transformations, losses… Tregillis writes well about these, and I tend to be bad at reading that. There’s one aspect of Visser’s character arc in particular that still has me cringing now. It’s worse with characters I feel more involved with, which is maybe the place that Tregillis failed to capture me. I’m not fascinated by his characters, so I didn’t have that drive to carry on reading and find out what happens, how they get out of their messes. I’m not sure I’ll read future books, because I only sort of want to know what happens to the characters, and I’m not sure if that’s enough to keep me going through the bad stuff.

And Tregillis definitely demonstrates he isn’t afraid to hurt his characters. There’s no real reassurance that there’ll be a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it shapes my idiosyncratic response to the story.

In terms of plot and setting, it’s pretty awesome. He sets up an elaborate alternate history with mechanical servitors and alchemy, and a war between the French and the Dutch in consequence. There’s all sorts of philosophical stuff explored around this: concepts of the soul, theology, practical and societal changes… Tregillis doesn’t skimp on that kind of detail and background development at all. There’s room and to spare for more development as well: this isn’t a concept exhausted after the first book.

If I sound ambivalent, that’s a personal reaction; there’s a lot here to fascinate and absorb.

Originally posted on my blog, here.
Profile Image for Phil.
1,624 reviews104 followers
January 14, 2023
This was my first Tregillis novel, and after a few aborted attempts (almost DNF) due to the rather odd setup and prose, I managed to finish and like it. Tregillis presents here an alternative reality going back to the 17th century, where Holland managed, via alchemy (magic), to create the Clakkers-- golem-like mechanical beings. Clakkers, or mechanicals, come in various forms, from the ubiquitous servitors found in most upper class households to war machines and even as carriages and ships. Through some arcane process at 'the forge', these beings are animated and given a geas that compels them to obey their master's orders. Yet, as the first chapter establishes, they are as intelligent as humans, making them de facto slaves. Nonetheless, the Clakkers enabled Holland to conquer the world and now, circa 1920s, only the rump New French state (located in now Quebec) has yet to fall under their sway.

Tregillis gives us three main protagonists here. Jax, a mechanical, who starts off as a servitor of a wealthy family in Holland. Beatrice, who starts off as the Talleyrand in New France (e.g., the head spymaster/diplomat), and Visser, a clergyman in Holland who is actually a French spy. Tregillis does have some fun with history here, albeit at not a very deep level. The French are good Catholics (even the Pope is now in New France) while the Dutch (or 'Tulips' as they are called by the French) are of course protestants. Further, while the Dutch are taught (or rather interpellated) to believe that the mechanicals are soulless machines, the French see they as having souls, and therefore as slaves.

Very interesting world to be sure, and I really liked the tech and Tregillis' wry humor at times. On the one hand, this seems to be, or could be, a rather serious probing at the injustice of slavery in any form and contains some sophomore level musings via dialogue on the nature of free will. On the other hand, however, this serious subject matter is eclipsed by the attempts at humor throughout. Beatrice, for example, has a serious potty mouth, and many pages are spend depicting the silly cloths and outfits of the day. Taken together, this creates, or attempts to create, a rather lighthearted alternative reality but one that still deals with some complex and serious issues.

All that stated, Tregillis does give us some good intrigue and various action sequences that move the book along nicely, along with some good world building, and if that is what you are in the mood for, you could do worse. I am a bit uneasy, however, with the rather casual treatment of slavery here. Yes, they are machines magically endowed with intelligence, but the parallels between them and chattel slavery is obvious; it is difficult to find humor in such a state of affairs. All in all, YMMV, but I will go with 3 stars.
Profile Image for Trzcionka.
691 reviews71 followers
Shelved as 'nieprzeczytane'
November 4, 2022
Kończę na 66 stronie.
Pokonał mnie kwiecisto - kanciasty styl pisania naszprycowany wzniosłymi metaforami i porównaniami. Nie da się tego długo czytać bez irytacji i odczuwania szybkiego zmęczenia lekturą. Potem doszły wulgaryzmy i obcesowość jakich dawno nie widziałam w książce. Ze skrajności w skrajność. Jakby to nie wystarczyło mamy jakieś religijne rozkminy, które zupełnie mi nie podchodzą w żadnej książce. Sporo też w tej pozycji ścian tekstu, a dialogów jak na lekarstwo. Czuć, że to ten typ książki w której autor zamiast pokazać opisuje wszystko czytelnikowi. Do tego mam wrażenie, że dokładnie wiem jak wszystko się potoczy. Po 60 z 454 stronach..
W opiniach innych osób doczytałam, że książka się dłuży, mało w niej akcji i mogłaby być znacznie krótsza. To przelało czarę goryczy. Za dużo negatywów.
A pozytyw? Świat wygląda na ciekawie zbudowany. Jest też jakiś pomysł, który brzmi nieźle. Jednak to trochę za mało - w obliczu całej reszty - by przeczytać tę opasłą trylogię.
Profile Image for Lisa.
346 reviews536 followers
June 24, 2015
Review from Tenacious Reader: http://www.tenaciousreader.com/2015/0...

4.5/5 stars

The Mechanical is a wonderful steampunk, alternate history novel that takes the reader into the dark world of spies and war and also examines issues of slavery versus free will and religion. This book can be quite dark, but it balances the horrific parts with a fascinating world and wonderful characters.

“Clakkers” or mechanical men powered by alchemy to serve humans. There are several kinds, giving them specialties (for example, some are military, trained for fighting). The are faster, stronger and more durable than humans. They are intelligent and they are completely subservient and obedient to their human masters. At least usually. There are “rogue” Clakkers that have for some reason gained some level of free will, giving them the ability to act according to their own thoughts and agendas versus just following commands. These rogues are greatly feared and prompt a witch hunt level of hysteria.

Imagine how easily an army of Clackers could change the course of a war as they provide a huge advantage. And that is exactly what happened when the Netherlands invented and used them close to hundreds of years before the story was set, pushing the French into exile. One of our perspectives is Bernice, is a French spymaster. She gives us insight into the current political field, and the plight of the French. I really enjoyed her character. She’s a fighter and she has been dealt a horrible hand, so we get a good taste of her strength and personality. You just can’t help but want things to get better for her.

This book has an interesting exploration of “what constitutes a thinking being? At what point can a machine become an individual, and hence be entitled to free will? When we create intelligent machines, should we also be responsible for determining what rights these machines may have? Where do you draw the line? The concept of free will is a huge theme in this book, as well as how to differentiate between a simple clock and a machine that may have some level of intelligence. How can you prove existence of thinking? Lack of proof does not prove a lack of existence.

And through the perspective of Jax, we gain understanding that these Clakkers are more than just machines. It is quite interesting having a Clakker POV, and can be eerily like human thinking at times. Not completely, but similar enough that the questions of freedom versus slavery, and what rights should these machines have need to be raised.

Our final perspective is linked to Jax’s and actually strengthens those questions as well. I really don’t want to say more as I think that storyline is probably best not knowing much before going in. But it can get incredibly dark and disturbing. It also raises a great number of questions about the technology used for Clakkers.

I don’t hesitate to recommend this one. It is very well paced, full of action, intrigue and great characters.

Audiobook note: Chris Kayser did a wonderful job with narration, he’s quite easy to listen to and the pronunciations and inflections all worked quite well. The story is also one that lends its self to a great listen.
Profile Image for Theo Logos.
636 reviews102 followers
September 4, 2022
The Mechanical demands your attention with its bold concept of alternative history. It’s premised upon the Dutch developing an alchemical technology in the 17th century that made them the dominate world power, and reshaped how the world and technology would develop. From this flows The Mechanical’s two great strengths — absolutely riveting world building, and a powerful moral conflict directly predicated upon it that drives all the characters and action of the story.

The alchemy that revolutionized the world was mechanical constructs endowed with the power of perpetual motion, and possessing artificial intelligence. The how of this technology is never explained (it’s magic) but its effects reshaped the world. The Dutch, powered by this technology, become a super power, crush their rival, Catholic France, and force the tattered remnants of French government to retreat to their North American colonies. The Pope and Vatican flee with them. Subsequent technological development — transportation, energy, warfare — all is based upon this core Dutch discovery, which remains a closely guarded state secret. When the story opens in the year 1926, the face of the world is utterly transformed.

Ah, but there are unexpected consequences! The AI endowed constructs (essentially robots) are the necessary servant class of this world. Their construction includes sophisticated fail-safes to ensure their absolute obedience. But what no one know, or what they can neither acknowledge nor even think about, is that these Mechanicals have developed self awareness, and long to be free.

The story develops along two main lines — the political conflict between the dominant Dutch empire and the vestige remnants of France in North America, and the rebellion of a few, damaged Mechanicals that challenge the very basis of the world order. Jax, the construct hero we root for is the beating, clockwork heart of the tale, connecting both story lines. The other two leads are fascinatingly flawed, and inject much of the necessary conflict, ambiguity, and tension into the plot.

The story took its time developing. It established the necessary world building, character development, and even philosophical musings on free will vs determinism at a comfortably slow pace, yet always remained engaging. Note that The Mechanicals doesn’t stand alone — it is the first of a trilogy that tells the entire tale. If you enjoy it as much as I did, you will be committed to reading all three.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,050 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
February 9, 2017
I got about 1/4 in and decided I wouldn't finish. I liked the first novel of the author's previous trilogy, Bitter Seeds, but never went back to the other books in that series. I think it is for similar reasons that I don't think I'll finish this one. Ian Tregillis very creatively weaves automatons and clockwork people into historical events. The previous trilogy looked at World War II, and The Alchemy Wars are set more during Louis XIV. If you are interested in how issues of mechanical beings would fare during this era, you would probably love this book. Solidly not for me, but maybe for others.
Profile Image for Sarah.
732 reviews73 followers
March 22, 2016
I'm really torn between two and three stars on this one but just based on my relief with being done I'm going with two. It really was more like two for the first half and three for the second.

This book never entirely worked for me. My biggest quibble - this one's going to take time - was the particular alt-history world that this guy created. There's a war going between New Amsterdam and New France but we're not given a year that it's taking place. New Amsterdam ceased to exist in the mid-17th century so I was thinking that this was set somewhere in there. And then there are other major timeline issues as you move forward because of the American Revolution and the Louisiana Purchase. But then they mention Louis XIV and Louis XV, followed by "first in a long line of kings". So if he died in 1774, then what freaking year is this set in? So we finally get a ballpark around 50% and an actual year at 80%. 80%!!!

His explanation for this lack of English presence? On page 1 we have a series of quotes including "His philosophical contretemps with Isaac Newton in 1675... would mark the last significant intellectual discourse between England and the continent prior to the chaos of Interregnum and Annexation". That is absolutely the only thing that is mentioned to explain the lack of an English presence. I searched all over my Kindle looking for something.

The frustrating thing (okay, clearly there was more than one) was that this could have been easily handled by giving us a time reference at the very beginning of the book and giving us an explanation for England's absence. If this hadn't been nagging at me for 80% of the book, I'm quite sure I would have enjoyed it more. By the way, just so nobody else goes through the same thing, it's 1926.

I realize that some people will think this is nitpicking but this actually caused a significant amount of frustration and annoyance. To top it off, it took 50% of the book before it got interesting and I never did warm up to one of the main characters. There are two. The clakkers themselves are interesting, especially the way that they communicate in their special language. I also liked the use of the geas to keep them in line. I liked what happened to Visser and would have liked to hear more about him. Just not enough to read the second book.
Profile Image for Marius.
65 reviews14 followers
October 26, 2017
I was undecided between 4 and 5 stars, but I am too lazy to nitpick so I went with 5, and to be fair, the arguments for 4 start were mostly personal preferences.

This is more steampunk than sci-fi and it takes place in the beginning of the 20th century, in an alternate world.
The Dutch rule the world, or at least, as much as they care to conquer. Though no other countries seem to exist besides them and the French. This dominance comes from their technological advantage in the mechanical and alchemical fields, kept secret and very closely guarded.
Their mechanical servants powered by alchemy ensures that no one can stand against them. This self-aware automatons know as "Clakkers" are bound to servitude by a set of geases.

The story follows three characters.

The clakker Jax in his(its?) desire and quest to become free. Father Visser, a priest and a spy, though it escaped me as what exactly was he spying on, and Berenice, a French spymaster or is it spymistress?

The writing is engaging and quite flawless. There were also a few unexpected and quite brutal twists introduced by the author.

The characters are extremely well rounded, so much that, I was rooting for Jax almost from the beginning.

Without a doubt, I will continue to read the series.
Profile Image for Jared.
389 reviews10 followers
May 17, 2018
Too many characters and the slow pacing made this a hard book to get in to. The proliferation of foreign words, made up, Nordic and French, also did this no favors in readability. If the story had stayed on Jax I would have fallen head over heels, but though he is the only interesting character in the book, he gets about 1/4 of the screen time. Also, I just don't like steampunk at all and this doesn't do enough to differentiate itself, which was the same issue I had with his last book. This is two stinkers in a row for Tregillis and it just might be my last. Even though he is a very talented writer, he seems to have run out of original and interesting ideas for his stories.
Profile Image for Liviu Szoke.
Author 29 books364 followers
March 19, 2015
Though the steampunk it is not my absolute favorite subgenre, Tregillis became quickly one of my to follow authors. Bitter Seeds was a decent and inovative fantasy delivery, but this time we have a metaphysical journey, combinated with a vivid description of an alternate reality, where the human-alike robots are something usual in the begining of the XXth century all over the world. Part medieval world, part I, Robot (the movie, not the collection), it kept me hooked from the first to the last page. Hopefully, more to come!
Profile Image for Andris.
331 reviews57 followers
February 6, 2017
Interesanta alternatīvās vēstures pasaule, kas ir Tregillisa stiprā puse, ar tēliem ir švakāk. Viena no diviem vadošajiem tēliem, franču spiegu tīkla vadītāja Berenīsa, ir, maigi izsakoties, kaitinoša un viņas lēmumi liek vaicāt, kā viņa ir nonākusi šajā augstajā amatā.

Grāmata ir triloģijas ievads, tai nav pašai savas noslēgtas stāsta līnijas, kas, ar retiem izņēmumiem, mani stipri kaitina.

Profile Image for Milo.
770 reviews81 followers
October 21, 2015
The Review Can Also Be Found Here:: http://thefictionalhangout.blogspot.c...

Ian Tregillis has quickly emerged as one of my go-to authors if I want to read some good alternate historical fiction, with a sci-fi/fantasy bent. His Milkweed Tryptych series saw British warlocks battle Nazi super soldiers in an awesome alternate WW2 setting and absolutely blew me away. The Mechanical offers up more of the same, an inventive world, a compelling atmosphere and an awesome finale. The book grabbed me from the moment I started reading as it pulled it into an alternate, alchemy-fuelled world where the Dutch have risen to become the world power, in the 17th Century following scientist Christiaan Hyugen’s use of magic to create several intelligent clockwork robots that live only to serve their masters. It’s an imaginative, original and captivating premise that had me hooked, and it never disappointed.

The book doesn’t shy away from the dark nature of what we’re witnessing. Using themes from political thrillers and spy novels we’re thrust into a world unlike anything you’ll have quite seen before. The execution of French spies may not allow for the most uplifting start to the novel, but it does set the tone for The Mechanical. We’re thrust into the world through the eyes of the clakker named Jax, who is part faithful servant, part ultimate superweapon. His relationships with some of the human characters helps drive this book, particularly with the French spymaster Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Perigord. There are other characters that the book touches on as well such as Father Visser, another person who’s hiding secrets, for he is in fact a Catholic Priest, as it creates compelling, enthralling characters with a variety of personalities and motivations. The amount of depth that’s on display here is intense, and you get a fully realised sense of the world that although may not allow for one of the quickest reads ever, does provide for one of the most engrossing.

It’s also pretty worth noting that you shouldn’t expect a happy ending whilst reading this book, there isn’t any real assurance that anybody will be safe, and Tregillis manages to create a level of tension and unpredictability that keeps running through the book. The Alchemy Wars are a fascinating concept and it explores the relations between the French and the Dutch very well in a world where most historical alternate fantasies don’t really touch much on either. The good news is that The Mechanical is not a standalone novel so you can expect plenty more from the Universe, which is great because Tregillis has created a world I can’t wait to return to. The next book comes in the form of The Rising, which is the second book in the trilogy and due out later this year. It’s certainly something that based on the quality of this book, I can expect to see topping the best of the year lists.

In conclusion therefore it’s safe to say that The Mechanical is a confident, enthralling and captivating read from Ian Tregillis that puts few things wrong as it kickstarts an awesome new trilogy from the writer of the Milkweed Tryptych novels. He’s a writer who deserves a hell of a lot more exposure with his imaginative fiction and this is really something that more fans of SFF should check out when they get the chance. The Mechanical is a great jumping on point if you want to learn just what makes the author so good.

Profile Image for Brandt.
693 reviews16 followers
August 7, 2015
There is a chapter in The Mechanical where two characters with different religious philosophies discuss whether Free Will is real or an illusion. This is what drives the plot of this brilliant alternate history. In the Mechanical, Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens discovered a means of creating clockwork men who help the Dutch become masters of the world. All that stands in their way are the exiled French court, living in North America. It's impossible to discuss the plot points without massive spoilers, but the discussion of Free Will is crucial to the Mechanical and helps elevate to one of the best science fiction reads out there.
Profile Image for T. Frohock.
Author 18 books314 followers
April 3, 2016
Positively excellent! A riveting look at free will and slavery, examined through the lens of Calvinistic and Catholic philosophies in a fast-paced alternative history. I appreciated the way Tregillis took his time and seated the reader in the world and the story with the opening scenes before launching into the action. In taking such great care, the characters were vibrant and simply leapt off the page--their motivations were clear, and I cared deeply enough about each one so that their pain was palpable. Intelligent and witty, The Mechanical was a thoroughly immersive and enjoyable story.

After this superb introduction into Tregillis' works, I'll be looking for more.
Profile Image for Tudor Ciocarlie.
457 reviews215 followers
April 4, 2015
Bitter Seeds was far from my favorite books, but this novel is a much more thoughtful and interesting examination of an alternate history. I loved the world-building and how the author uses this world in order to explore some heavy themes like free-will or slavery. The only thing I didn’t like was the total absence of any closure and I am a little angry at the writers that play these games with the reader. Even if The Mechanical is the first novel in the series, it should have been a complete novel.
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,717 reviews2,311 followers
July 23, 2020
Very entertaining and creative story of Jax, a "clakker", a mechanical automaton in an alternate 19th-century Netherlands and Canada. In this world, Clakkers were created by the Dutch as mechanical slaves. They have created their own culture and language of "claks" and mechanical sounds to communicate. They have some awareness of their station, but are kept in this subservient and servile state by their creators. The French monarchy and spies work to liberate these mechanicals, thereby halting the rapid expanision of Dutch colonialism in Europe and North America.

Through a series of events, Jax "awakens" to his own decision-making, shedding the "geasa" or compulsion yoke - a physical searing and dismantling pain in the clakker body to complete the assigned tasks of their masters. This whole mechanism of the "geasa" was one of the most interesting parts of the book - a hieracrchy of requests and desires that can be made or overridden, and these clakkers who even when they don't want to, are physically compelled to follow.

Steampunk worldbuilding and language - the "Brasswork Throne", airships, alchemical mysteries that power the clakkers - intriguing elements in this world. I did like the anti-imperialist bent of the clakkers, something you don't often see in steampunk that rely heavily on Victorian era England or US. It was intriguing to see a different space explored ("New Amsterdam" and New France - Quebec - in North America) with this steam lens.

Some science fantasy elements blending nicely with a spy thriller. I'll be returning to the other two books in this trilogy.
Profile Image for Antonio Diaz.
321 reviews62 followers
December 22, 2015
The Mechanical es una novela muy curiosa, a caballo entre varios géneros, pero que no se decanta por ninguno. Esta característica, que podría lastrar la novela, en realidad la convierte en algo ciertamente único y nuevo, un excitante cóctel resultado de la mezcla a partes iguales de diversos ingredientes.

La acción de The Mechanical se sitúa en una Tierra alternativa donde los holandeses descubren la manera de crear "robots". Esta "tecnología" les convierte en la absoluta potencia mundial y altera la historia tal y como la conocemos. Esto le da a la novela un trasfondo totalmente ucrónico, con un clarísimo punto de Jumbar (la aplicación de la alquimia para crear robots) y un desarrollo interesante de un mundo donde esto hubiese tenido lugar. La propia creación de estos autómatas (un término posiblemente más adecuado que robot, aunque eso es lo que son en definitiva) tiene, en principio, tintes muy fantásticos. El gremio de alquimistas oculta los secretos de cómo se fabrican y se les dota de inteligencia con un grado de paranoia suprema. Parece más un culto de un dios primigenio que otra cosa.

Pero Tregillis, en mi opinión, parece utilizar la alquimia como una excusa para desarrollar estos constructos inteligentes y explorar las consecuencias en una sociedad que cuenta y depende de ellos en gran medida. A pesar de que la acción se desarrolla a principios del siglo XX, no hay coches, ¿para qué? Tienes autómatas tirando de carros que te pueden llevar de un lado a otro mejor de lo que cualquier humano podría conducir un vehículo. Estos elementos de pura ciencia ficción le dan a la novela un fantástico sentido de la maravilla. La aparición de los autómatas tiene lugar 250 años antes del comienzo de la novela, y su presencia (o ausencia de ella) en las sociedades ha moldeado este mundo alternativo.

A pesar de lo anterior, la evidente intención del autor es realizar un ensaño sobre la inteligencia y qué es exactamente lo que nos hace humanos. The Mechanical tiene discursos filosóficos muy profundos (que no lastran la narración, por cierto) sobre la naturaleza del ser, el libre albedrío y demás. Esto es lo que hace que, después de leer una magnífica novela de aventuras (con algún problema menor de ritmo) te quedes pensando en las reflexiones y las cuestiones que plantea la novela. The Mechanical tiene mucho poso.

Esta novela no es para nada autoconclusiva (aunque se cierra un poco al final) y te deja deseando leer la continuación (con el ominoso título de The Rising). Sin duda seguiré deseando saber qué más nos descubre Tregillis sobre este mundo de alquimia e inteligencias artificiales.

Esta novela tiene bastantes ingredientes en común con Danza de Tinieblas, de Eduardo Vaquerizo. A pesar de lo cual, las ejecuciones de ambas novelas son radicalmente distintas (aunque el lector al que le gustase la de Vaquerizo debería sin duda aproximarse a esta).
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 18 books1,279 followers
February 2, 2016
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

So to be clear, what makes Ian Tregillis' The Mechanical such a dazzling success as a genre novel is primarily his world-building and other "what if" skills; predicated on a fairly standard premise from steampunk literature ("What if physicist Christiaan Huygens had actually invented robots in the 1600s?"), what makes the novel so compelling is what Tregillis guesses would happen to world history as a result, presenting us with a retro-futuristic 1929 in which an all-ascendant Dutch Empire rules the planet (due to being the sole possessors of robots for the last 250 years), steam power was never developed (who needs steamships when you can just have 10,000 robot rowers in the bilge of your luxury cruise liner?), and a defeated French aristocratic diaspora live in exile in Montreal (along with a defeated Vatican), where Catholic rebels have formed a robot "underground canal system" (remember, no railroads) in order to save the "souls" of these artificial creatures, and whose main weapon in their no-tech society is petroleum-based epoxies that gum up a robot's intricate mechanics when hurled against one in battle. But that said, as all us genre fans have learned the hard way over the years, even the greatest premise in the world can't be saved without competent skills in dialogue, character development and the other building blocks of a decent novel; and so while Tregillis' skills in such aren't particularly spectacular, it should be noted that they're good enough to do the job, mainly getting out of the way so we can enjoy the heady theoretical 20th century so unlike our own that the author has posited here. Volume one of a coming trilogy (volume 2 is already out, in fact), this was a thrilling enough and philosophically challenging enough start to make me excited about continuing the series; and it comes strongly recommended to steampunk fans, although you might want to skip it if you're not.

Out of 10: 8.8, or 9.8 for steampunk fans
Profile Image for Olga Kowalska (WielkiBuk).
1,412 reviews2,305 followers
July 28, 2016
A tale old as time - a machine rebels against its creator, a slave resists his shackles and stands against his master. Yet, the created world is different, built in clockpunk esthetics, with cogs, modes, springs tic-toking around. More for connoisseurs than rookies.
„Mechaniczny” zdaje się być lekturą raczej dla znawców tematu, czytelników, którym nieobce są treści cyberpunkowe, steampunkowe i wszystkie podobne odmiany gatunku science-fiction. O ile tematyka buntu, wolnej woli, czy wojny religijno-światopoglądowej jest w zasadzie uniwersalna, to jednak nakręcany, tykający świat stworzony przez Iana Tregillisa niełatwy do przyswojenia, jeśli nigdy nie mieliśmy z clockpunkiem do czynienia. Sporo tu technicznych elementów wyciągniętych żywcem z pracowni Leonarda da Vinci, sporo zwrotów gatunkowych, opisów, które działają na wyrafinowaną wyobraźnię odbiorcy docelowego. To dzięki temu „Mechaniczny” jest właśnie tym czym jest – to jest sedno, jego podstawa i szansa, by zachwycić czytelników spragnionych dopracowanych opowieści skonstruowanych z zegarmistrzowską precyzją.
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