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Fantasy Friday – Mainspring

Mainspring by Jay Lake

Review by Bowden P. (Trey)

I know a lot of my reviews are positive, and seldom dip below 3 stars. Mainly because its much more fun to write about books I like, rather than ones that irritate, bore or worst of all, waste my valuable free time. So, for a change of pace, I thought I’d write about one I didn’t care for very much: Mainspring by Jay Lake.

Mainspring is an interesting addition to modern fantasy, as well as the clockpunk and steampunk genres. And while interesting, its got flaws. The best I can give it is 2.5 stars.

Mainspring has one of the most interesting settings I’ve seen outside Celestial Matters by Richard Garfinkle. How so? Well, in Mainspring the metaphor of the Clockmaker God is made manifest – Earth is part of a vast celestial orrery, with a vast gear as part of the world (the Equatorial Wall) that divides the world into Northern and Southern hemispheres.

Believe me, this impacts the world. Its a different, if familiar world. The British Empire spans the Northern Hemisphere with its conventional and aeronautic navies, with its only rival being China. Queen Victoria still rules even though it is the early 20th century, well past her death in our timeline. Christianity is different, with a Brass Christ that was broken on a gear by the Romans, 12 is a holy number and clocks play a role in worship.

As intriguing as all of this is, it is only background though. Mainspring is about Hethor Jacques, a 16 year old apprentice clockmaker in New Haven Connecticut, a colony of the Crown. There, he is warned by the angel Gabriel, that the world is winding down and that he must rewind it. Gabriel gives him a feather and then vanishes. While Hethor has some practical knowledge, and is good with his hands, he’s honest, too good for this world and as thick as two short planks. He shows the feather to his master and is promptly accused of theft by his master’s son and expelled. This expulsion is only the beginning of Hethor’s journey to the south, with side stops at a legendary dungeon of Boston, being pressed into the Royal Navy on an Airship on an expedition for the Equatorial Wall (something reputed to devour empires).

Mainspring has some of the most incredible world building I’ve seen for a fantasy novel. That alone makes it memorable.

However, it has its flaws. My biggest lies with Hethor. This is someone who has a Destiny. But he grates on me, never seizing the initiative and being the luckiest individual ever. Or just chosen by the author to be the viewpoint to show off the mad, beautiful world he built.

And while I liked the worldbuilding, I’m not sure Lake went far enough in his worldbuilding. I’d have thought the world to be more different due to the changes, bent out of recognition should be more likely. As it is, its overly familiar. And I have to ask, where are the slaves that Chief of Ropes Al-Wazir’s father were gathering with most of sub-Saharan Africa cut off from the world? In too many regards, it feels like “a god did it” is the explanation for most of the world

Then there is the Southern Hemisphere. When Hethor gets there, the book changes becoming a slog to read through. He falls in with a tribe of what I think are Australopithicenes who help him out of the goodness of their heart. Even escorting him well beyond their home ranges.

What makes it a slog is that the exploration and sensawunda that highlighted the first half, disappears. At which point Hethor’s flaws and Lake’s shortcomings as an author come to the fore. Instead of showing off the world, we’re treated to a mess of religion and philosophy. Not always something I look for in my leisure reading.

All in all, I didn’t care for this as much as I hoped and I guess that’s why I feel as strongly as I do. 2½ stars.

Likes: God as a Clockmaker metaphor made manifest in the world; The Equatorial Wall; Tribes of marauding angels; Extinct hominids (austraolopithicus and gigantopithicus I’m pretty sure of , maybe neanderthals as well) and animals populating the Southern Hemisphere; Airships.

Dislikes: The second half of the book, specifically the rather preachy bits; The personality of the tribe Hethor falls in with; Geopolitics of the setting – I’d have hoped for more changes; Hethor, for not being that interesting and too passive (you’d think he’d never heard the phrase “Put your trust in God, but keep your powder dry.”

Suggested For: Clockpunk and steampunk fans.

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2 Responses to “Fantasy Friday – Mainspring”

  1. […] Fantasy Friday – Mainspring — A reader reacts, not so much with the liking. […]

  2. Edward V. says:

    I agree for the most part. I am a big steam punk / clock punk fan. I had just read White Chapel Gods and was in the mood to read something that immersed me in a brilliantly designed clockwork world. This book came highly recommended by other steam punk fans.

    The world did not disappoint. I liked that the world fit on gears to move about the heavens. I liked the air ship. I liked a lot of the little details that went into the book. The problem was that the world will only carry the book so far. Once you get past the setting you are left with people you don’t really care about and who don’t captivate you.

    I put the book down just after he made it over the equatorial wall.

    If you like steam punk check out:
    Springheeled Jack by Mark Hodder
    White Chappel Gods by S. M. Peters
    Leviathan by Scott Westerfield
    Soulless by Gail Carriger
    Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

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