By Jay Lake
Tor Hardcover, June 2007
Spoiler alert! This review reveals plot details you may not want to know before you read the book. (Ed.)
In an alternate Universe, the Earth and the Moon run on brass tracks in the heavens, suspended by an equatorial Wall that separates the North and the South. The former is a sort of pseudo-Puritan Victorian sun-never-sets British Empire with viceroys, prudish religions and vaguely handwaved but completely accepted subjugation of the female half of the human race. It also has a Royal Navy which includes hydrogen-run airships, and is ruled by science or by what passes for such under those circumstances. The South is one of these never-seen lands where magic is supposed to run riot and all sorts of wondrous and legendary Garden-of-Eden things are supposed to occur. Every day is calculated by the passage of midnight, the thunderous roar of gears and wheels as the pendant Earth meshes with the supporting brass ring of heaven. This is supposed to be perfect and accurate, as all things created by God are—and the hero of our tale, young clockmaker apprentice Hethor Jacques, is blessed with an ability to always be "aware" of the passage of midnight. Including a sense that something is slightly off-kilter. A sense which is compounded by a nocturnal visit by an entity purporting to be the Archangel Gabriel, who informs our hero that the Mainspring of this mechanical world is winding down and therefore the clockwork is starting to hiccup. Hethor needs to find the Key Perilous, and then the said Mainspring, and rewind the world.
Not unsurprisingly, Hethor keeps the visit to himself—just long enough to realize that he needs help, and then to go looking for it in all the wrong places. The events he sets into motion first get him accused of being a liar and a thief and dismissed from his master's service. Then, in quick order, he falls into a strange society of New England drovers who apparently function under the password "the white toucan," passes into the hands of an evil sorcerer called William of Ghent, is buried alive, is rescued by a Royal Navy pressgang, flies off in an airship on a mission which turns out to revolve on rescuing a misadventure by General Gordon (of Khartoum...?) on the Equatorial Wall, and crosses the wall just before he is mashed into paste by the passing gears of heaven and slips into the unknown Southern Hemisphere in the company of one Simeon Malgus (Simon Magus?). Then he takes up with a band of hairy self-styled "correct people" with whom, in another airship, he floats off to the South Pole and the culmination of his quest.
It's a rich, weird world that Jay Lake clearly had a great deal of fun with. It's a world where the Brass Christ died in a horofixion as opposed to crucifixion, and the equivalent of the Lord's Prayer, mostly recognizable, suddenly vividly jumps off the tracks with lines like, "Our Father, who art in Heaven, craftsman be thy name" and "...thine is the power, and the precision." It is a world where good English tars serve on board hydrogen airships under Midshipmen and navigators using the polished brass navigational instruments of the kind now lovingly preserved in the museums of our own world. The worldbuilding is fantastic, sometimes downright poetic, and often philosophical—at one point Hethor ponders, "All Creation was artifice, was it not? Anyone with eyes could see that, bearing witness to Earth's orbital track, the gear atop the Equatorial Wall, the mechanical motion of the moon and the stars, even the lamp of the sun. Why wouldn't nen, and correct people, as well as animals, beetles, trees, fire and wind be artifice?"
It is a book made of equal parts of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, with a dash of Mark Twain and a pinch of Horatio Hornblower, and something else, something inimitable that is pure joyous Jay Lake.
But it's an uneasy novel, perhaps because of that ancestry and makeup.
Our hero is, perhaps purposefully, left confused about a lot of things of which he is inevitably ignorant. That is fine, but in this book the reader is left confused with Hethor, and that sometimes does grate. There are hints of things that are greater, a dichotomy of philosophies which is quietly setting that world on fire. One side believes that if everything mechanical, as believed to be created by God, will let the Earth run down into chaos and pave the way for the return of some entity called the Clockmakers, although both Hethor and his story's readers are left a little bemused as to what exactly the difference is between God and those Clockmakers. This theological underpinning makes the apparent simplicity of the cover story sound almost disingenuous at times. And the dénouement, at the Mainspring of the World (and don't get me wrong, this is a WONDERFUL conceit, in all ways), we get Hethor's failure, in a sense, because he comes there without the Key Perilous he had been charged to find and which is necessary to rewind the Mainspring...or does he? The key-shaped scar on his palm, relic of Gabriel's initial visit, blazes forth, and his epiphany (which apparently IS the Key Perilous) is that "love is the heart of God."
Uh. Yeah. Okay.
In that heart, Hethor is apparently granted a return to the living, albeit sans lower limbs, sacrificed in the Mainspring, and the boon to live out his days in the company of his hairy correct-people beloved whom he more or less brought back from the dead himself at the Mainspring. It is not entirely clear whether the Mainspring is now rewound, whether the Earth is back on track (so to speak), or even whether Hethor cares any more (in which case, why should the reader?). Is there a sequel? It's hard to tell from this book.
It's a story with a young protagonist, but there is far too much here for it to be considered a YA novel; it's got an archaic kind of mindset but one that's looked at and described through a modern eye, which makes it sit uneasy in its firmament. It's thoroughly enjoyable as a story and certainly consummately well written, but it has problems with pacing (which may be attributable, for all I know, to the Earth's Mainspring being out of kilter). If it had delved a little deeper into its philosophies, rather than skating over them or transcribing them into aphorisms of the "love is the heart of God" sort, it could have been a great novel. As it stands, it's simply an eminently enjoyable entertaining read, capable of transforming a rainy day into a bright vision of the unusual chasing the unlikely chasing the downright impossible while the gears of God thunder down once upon a midnight.