08 October, 2009

Review: Mainspring, by Jay Lake

"Our Father, who art in Heaven
Craftsman be thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy plan be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Forgive us this day our errors
A swe forgive those who err against us
Lead us not into imperfaction
And deliver us from chaos
For thine is the power , and the precision
For ever and ever. Amen" [page 97, paperback]
This is not the beginning of Mainspring (2007) [US][UK], by Jay Lake, also known as the master of short stories, but it gives you a good impression of one of the main topics in the book, which has many, many things to say:
- First trade novel of the author.
- First book in the Mainspring series.
- First clockpunk story by Jay Lake.
Clockpunk shares much in common with steampunk, except the technology. The gizmos used in clockpunk are based on springs and clockwork logic. With Mainspring, Jay lake serves a fast paced mix of religion versus science, clockpunk, adventure, alternative victorian earth, and stunning airships - as shown on the cover.

The Setup

Imagine an earth where Queen Victoria rules England, and the American Possessions are dominated by the Royal Navy, which rules the skies with a fleet of powerful airships. This is Northern Earth. On Southern Earth live people who believe in magic. North and South are separated by the Equatorial Wall that holds up the great Gears of the Earth. The planet is connected to the clockwork universe by great brass gears and passages that surround the lamp of the sun. The Earth is powered by a Mainspring, at its core.

Northern Earth, New Haven. Young Hethor, a clockmaker's apprentice, is visited by a brass Angel.
"I am Gabriel, come to charge you with duty" ...."The Key Perilous is lost" .... "The Mainspring of the world winds down" .... "Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor." [pages 2+3, paperback]
As a strong believer, Hethor tries to cope with his new duty. But he has many opponents - chief among them, the Rational Humanists - who would like to wind down the Mainspring in order to free humanity from God. Does faith move mountains? By the end of the story, you may find out.

My Take in Brief

For me this is not just one book, it is a three in one story. The first part, which takes place on Northern Earth, reminded me of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. The second part takes place on the Equatorial Wall is akin to the travel of Frodo, Sam, and Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Part three takes place on Southern Earth and reminded me of Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. It is a fast paced story which takes place in an extraordinary, weird, and well described world. The description of technology is quite amazing. I very much enjoyed the philosophical discussions between the strong believers and the Rational Humanists. And let us not forget the philosophy of the "correct people", who live on South Earth. There are, however, a few elements of the narrative that diminished my reading pleasure.

Hethor is more a passive actor in the story than an active protagonist. I had a difficult time understanding the behavior and reactions of several characters when they first met Hethor. Imagine for a second a sixteen year old boy, standing in front of you, who proceeds to tell you that he is on mission to save world, and he received his orders from an angel. Additionally, there are many things that Hethor cannot understand due to his limited knowledge. And we, the reader, are consequently left in the dark as well. Several of the secondary characters are flat, and most of them die relatively quickly - cut short from becoming full fledged actors. In the end, the story arc is rigidly linear, and the action remains monotone, though still above average. As a disclaimer, the book contains a fair amount of explicit violence, in case that turns you off.

Bona Fide's Book Oracle

We finished the book and there was... silence. This happens seldom between me and my book oracle. I was braced for a hail of words from my inner book critic and was shocked to be met with silence. I asked: "Hey are you sleeping? I finished the book and that means you did too!" I think maybe all the religious philosophizing scared him off, which is a topic we both don't prefer to avoid. So, it seems, I have to do this part alone. You read the previous passage and there is not much to add. Mainspring is a good book. But it is definitely not my pick for novel of the year. It is simultaneously extraordinary and weird, and if you are looking for a fast paced steampunk/clockpunk book then you probably won't be disappointed.

More Clockpunk by Jay Lake

In 2008 the second book of the series - Escapement (2008) [US][UK] - hit the book stores. Same world, but with new characters and a different story:
"Paolina Barthes is a young woman of remarkable intellectual ability - a genius on the level of Isaac Newton. But she has grown up in isolation, in a small village of shipwreck survivors, on the Wall in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. She knows little of the world, but she knows that England rules it, and must be the home of people who possess the learning that she so desperately wants. And so she sets off to make her way off the Wall, not knowing that she will bring her astounding, unschooled talent for sorcery to the attention of those deadly factions who would use or kill her for it." [Source]


James said...

I've been a fan of Lake's other works for a while now, but I have yet to delve into this series. Just never seemed my cup of tea. Just bought Mainspring though, so I look forward to reading it.

"For me this is not just one book, it is a three in one story."

I have noticed that Lake's books are like this, at least those I have read. Green had it, almost to its detriment because it broke the flow of the story completely, and I do believe Trial of Flowers featured it, but to a lesser extent. I have always put it down to his being predominantly a short fiction writer.

Emperor said...

Definately. Gonna have to pick this up. Im now viewing my own work in a new light...steampunk...I suppose mine would be Epic Fantasy mixed with ArcanaPunk. ArcanaPunk...you heard it first, from Emperor at Crimson Star Entertainment. Check out my work on the site. Yeah.

Heh. But for real, I love steampunk, and goin through all of these blogs...and my to read list keeps growin. This might be number four right now. Ive got Boneshaker and Lamentation...so this will be number three.

ediFanoB said...

thanks for your comment. As I wrote Mainspring was my first Jay Lake book. I will definitely read Escapement.

Even Mainspring is like three books in one I must say that this didn't break the flow of the story. Maybe this is an advantage compared to the books you mentioned.

Anyway give Mainspring a try.

ediFanoB said...

thanks for comment.
I had a look at your page. Your products are realted to the d20 system. I don't play any role playing games because I spend my time for reading books.

Anyway I would like to recommend two other books by George Mann: The Affinity Bridge and The Osiris Ritual.

James said...


Green suffered because the break in narration between the first and second parts were so visceral. Had the book ended there, it would have made for a complete novella. The second break in the narration, between the second and third parts of the book, was less of a hindrance and did not cut the flow so dramatically even though it was a radical shift from one side of the map to the other.

Trial of Flowers also had this sort of separation, but it was much less noticeable and did not hinder the flow of the story or my enjoyment. Note that the break in Green never really bothered me either, but I noticed that it had a negative effect on other reviewers.

Jay Lake is a very good writer and I have to applaud his ability to consistently present interesting stories wrought through some of the densest prose I have ever laid eyes on (a lot of story for so few words). I am definitely looking forward to reading Mainspring when it finally arrives.

ediFanoB said...


I appreciate your explanations about Green and Trial of Flowers. Green is on my list. I will keep in mind what you write about the novel.

Please let my know your opinion about Mainspring when you have finished the book. You also can send me a mail. You find my address at my blogger profile.

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sophie said...

It is indeed a cool clockpunk story by Jay Lake, full of adventure and I can't stop reading it.
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Roxanna said...

It will not succeed in reality, that's exactly what I think.