I have read a lot of historical fiction this year, and I’m pretty tired of England. When writing a historical fiction, writers tend to go for a well known and popular time in history to make the book more appealing. There is nothing wrong with this, these times (like WWII) are popular because they are interesting. On the other hand, it has been causing me some historical fiction fatigue. This is just one reason that The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis, a steampunk historical fiction about The Dutch vs. the French in the early 1900s, is one of my favorite books of the past year.
In The Mechanical we meet Jax, a clakker automaton slave to the Dutch Empire. He is one of our three main protagonists, and a mechanical man, built and given sentience by the Dutch to serve them for all time. He and his brethren have given birth to a golden age for the Netherlands, advancing their science and industry at unparalleled speed and making their armies unstoppable. However, Jax is not a willing subject of The Netherlands, but a slave with no free will; something he hopes to change. Clakkers are treated like furniture, with not a thought or care for the minds trapped inside these powerful machines. Clakkers do occasionally break free of their chains, but the early pages of the book treat us to the horrors waiting for any clakker who escapes from the mental geas that controls them.
In addition to Jax, we have Luuk Visser and Berenice Charlotte de Mornay-Périgord (their names are a handful). Our final two protagonists are a spy and spymaster for France, the final country holding out against Dutch tyranny. Luuk is a spy in the field operating out of Amsterdam and Berenice is spymaster living in France’s final stronghold in North America. The French have managed to hold out against the Dutch with their brilliant chemistry that allows them to combat the Dutch mechanical men. Thus we have the setting for our story; Jax searching for freedom, Luuk trying to survive in the enemy capitol, and Berenice trying to find a way to stop the unstoppable behemoth that is the Dutch.
The character development in the story is impressive. Jax goes on a journey of self discovery and growth as he slowly works towards his freedom. Luuk struggles with his allegiance to France as he is put through horror after horror in Amsterdam. Berenice copes with having to achieve the unachievable, turning the tide in a war that is already lost. Each character brings a lot to the table, and leaves with even more. The 1900’s that Ian Tregillis has built is imaginative and detailed in its use of steam, engineering, and chemicals to build a fascinating world. From living airships to weaponized adhesives, there are lots of fresh ideas (at least for me) that kept me excited to learn more and more.
The book is short and sweet, with a well paced plot that kept me interested the entire way through. My one complaint is that the book ended on a fairly large cliffhanger at the end of the story that felt a little abrupt. However, I will soon be able to satisfy my need to discover what happens as book 2 in the series, The Rising, comes out next month. If you are a fan of historical fiction, and are looking for something a little off the beaten path, I encourage you to pick up The Mechanical. Even without its unique flavor it is a solid book, but the combination of fresh ideas and talented writing made this one of my favorite books of the year.