The Alchemy War
by Ian Tregillis
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Book 1: The Mechanical
This series consists of two novels so far, but I've only read the first, and I haven't found information on whether there will be a third one, or even more after that. [EDIT: A third novel has been published.] The Mechanical is a combination of alternate history and steampunk, with the main action taking place in the Netherlands and North America in the year 1926. The Dutch are the dominant power in the world, having defeated both England and France some 200 years prior. They occupy most of France and also control the majority of the Americas, except for portions of Canada. Marseilles-in-the-West (probably Montreal) is home to the French King-in-Exile. The steampunk portion of the story centers on Clakkers, mechanical constructs that are employed in multiple forms for various functions, from personal servants to manufacturing. Their invention and development is credited to Christiaan Huygens, Dutch scientist and horologist (clock-maker). The French denounce the subjugation of the mechanicals, but it's not clear how many of them take that position because they think Clakkers have consciousness, or whether it's because they are the force that maintains Dutch dominance. Clakker soldiers are nearly impregnable, but the French have been experimenting with a few defensive and offensive weapons to defeat them.
The Dutch are aligned with Protestant churches, mainly Calvinist, while France supports Catholicism and the Pope-in-Exile. Main characters in the New World are the Vicomtesse Berenice de Laval, the King's Talleyrand (chief of spies), a position named for the historical diplomat; her closest confidant, Captain Hugo Longchamp; and Duke Montmorency, financial advisor to the King. In Europe it is the Dutch Queen Margaret and her top advisors, Minister General Hendricks, and Anastasia Bell, head of the Stemwinder's Guild, essentially Head Inquisitor. Others are Pastor Luuk Visser, financier Pieter Schoonraad, and his main Clakker servant Jax. The Schoonraad family is being relocated to New Amsterdam to assume control of a failed bank. Visser is secretly a Catholic priest and member of an underground cell working for Clakker emancipation. The story is slow in developing, with plot movement taking a back seat to the examination of philosophical ideas, primarily of Descartes and Spinoza, of whether or not man has free will, with the argument extended to Clakkers as well. The exception to that is with Berenice. She is strong-willed, libidinous, and foul-mouthed, the only thing as important as her duty being her husband's lascivious desires. There's only one major negative I'll mention, and that is the repetitive phrasings of the 'tick-tock' noises the Clakkers make, although that is somewhat offset when we learn Berenice has deciphered at least some of their secret language.
The action picks up during the ocean voyage to the New World, in which something transformative happens to Jax. I won't elaborate on that to avoid spoilers, and also because the nature of that transformation wasn't entirely clear. It might only be a mechanical change, or it could be connected to the 'alchemy' that supposedly animates and controls Clakkers. Something similar happens to Visser, except in reverse, after he is captured and tortured by the Stemwinders. Does Jax have free will? Perhaps. Does Visser lose his free will after Anastasia Bell's torture? Is Bell correct in thinking neither humans or Clakkers have free will or a soul? Each reader can decide for themselves. In the end, it seems obvious to me the only sympathetic character is the non-human Jax. All of the people act more out of habit rather than conviction, controlled by the dictates of their society or their own personal desires, all are self-serving no matter how they think of themselves. That doesn't mean they aren't interesting, and I'm anxious to read the further adventures of Berenice, but I'm more concerned with what happens to Jax. I haven't purchased The Rising yet, but I will update this page when I get to it.
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