Okay, so the rundown is as follows. For all the lavish, bright, interesting points of Mainspring, Jay Lake's novel falls flat for the most part. It's rushed in the good parts and padded everywhere else, the characters don't seem to matter other than as props, and the main character doesn't really show enough growth to make his journey make sense. It's a loud, empty mess that might be a good read if you take it slow and get it out from the library, but I cannot recommend in normal circumstances. It's got good worldbuilding, but that's not enough to save it.
More, as always, below.
"The heart of God is the heart of the world. As man lives, so lives God. As God lives, so lives the world."
- Inscription on the Golden Tablet
I'm conflicted about Mainspring. I'm not entirely sure why I'm conflicted about it, but nevertheless, I find myself going back and forth on it. For all intents and purposes, I should like this book. It has some very interesting ideas on the nature of God and religion, it's a story that harkens back to pulp fiction's roots without a lot of the xenophobia and pro-colonial bent of a lot of the early pulp stories, and it features a world so delightful and expansive that I couldn't not love it. But still I pause, and I'm still investigating why that is. I mean, from my description up there, it sounds like an awesome book, right? But in the long run, I find myself, well, disappointed with it for some reason. A reason I don't exactly accept or understand. Why? Well, allow me to at least try to get my feelings out here...
Mainspring by Jay Lake is the story of Hethor Jacques. Hethor is a student and apprentice to Clockmaker Bodean. Clockmakers in Hethor's world are a lot more important, as the entire universe moves due to clockwork. The equator is literally a massive gear that rolls the earth around on a brass track, the version of Christ in this world was torn apart on a clockwork device known as a "Horofix", and, most importantly to the plot, the world is wound by a vast spring that extends from pole to pole. Hethor, of course, knows very little of this world when the Archangel Gabriel visits him and declares that he must make a dangerous journey to find an artifact called the "Key Perilous" and use it to re-wind and thus re-start the large clockwork motor at the heart of the world. Left without a choice, Hethor is given a silver feather from one of Gabriel's wings as a token of his quest, a feather that cuts the shape of a key into his palm and told absolutely nothing of his quest.
So naturally, he goes to Yale and finds Bodean's son Pryce, a divinity student, to see what the strange visitation meant. Pryce reacts strangely, and confiscates the feather for himself, but the head librarian of Yale manages to get the feather back and send Hethor on the road to Boston, where he can potentially petition the Viceroy for aid in his quest. And so young Hethor Jacques sets out on his quest, aided only by a secret order identified by the words "Albino Toucan" and the will of God that he find and restart the Mainspring of the world. In his quest, he will travel over the great gear-teeth of the Equatorial Wall, be press-ganged into the British Aeronautical Navy, and somehow discover a way to hear the ticking of the clockwork earth itself. But the forces of the Rational Humanists are ever lurking in the background, a sect that believes God abandoned Earth like a pocketwatch in a jungle, and it is only by letting it wind down that we will find ourselves again. And while Hethor may survive his quest, will he understand the implications of what he was questing for?
The best thing about Mainspring is by far the world. Jay Lake puts a lot of beautiful detail and a lot of thought into the world, and while parts of it (the Horofix, for instance) could stand to be better visualized or represented in the text, what you do get is amazing. Lake lays out an entire world with cosmologies, religions...even its own system of physics and sciences the likes of which rival most hard sci-fi novels. You can tell the care Lake took with his clockwork Earth, and with the people who inhabit it. I think the most-detailed would probably be the "Correct People", descendants of the first humans ever to emerge on to the Earth, though that may be by virtue of Hethor lingering with them the longest. But Lake does a wonderful job building up the geography, sights, smells, and the look of the place so much that it creates a vivid picture of the Clockwork Earth, and even the details of it breaking down are well-realized. It's believable, intriguing, and very vivid, and that's what the world should be.
The plot is also, when taken from a wide view, well-written. Initially, I was poised to complain that it wasn't adventurous enough, that the villains weren't present enough, that everyone seemed to be in the background, but then I realized: I was missing the point. The plot is about Hethor Jacques and his relationship with his god's plan, and an attempt to teach humanity, through him, how the world truly works. And it lays this out fairly well. Gabriel gives him a mission, and God keeps leaving golden tablets for Hethor to take with him, golden tablets he eventually understands and which help lead him to find the Key Perilous. When viewed as a journey of spiritual growth, the book becomes a lot easier to take. Though it's not quite an adventure story any more, more of a meditation disguised as pulp.
But even re-casting the story as a meditation on the nature of spiritual growth, there are issues. The only growth Hethor seems to have throughout the story is spiritual. Last week, I reviewed The Thin Executioner, and along with the spiritual growth, there was a certain maturity that was gained. The Neverending Story had a road to independence. Hethor...doesn't have any of those. He seems like the same innocent we meet at the beginning of the story, but with more divine intervention in his life. While he does find love and happiness, nothing...really changes about him. He may be a little wiser, and able to endure more hardships knowing it's God's plan for him, but he still feels as lost as ever.
Which leads me to the issue with the characters. There are very few memorable characters. None of them stick around for very long, and not much time is spent on them. They're mainly there to get Hethor from place to place to place, and it annoys me a little that such awesome characters are used as props. But that highlights a bigger problem. Lake doesn't appear to want to do anything with his characters, he just wants to use them to convey the setting. Librarian Childress, and Al-Wazir, and Hattie the hearse-driver are all excellent characters, but not much is spent on them. We get the customs of the Correct People, but almost none of the Correct People get very distinct personalities. They just react. And this is bad writing. People should have personality. Drive. Stuff like that.
And while the plot is excellent, the pacing is not. The meter of the book after the first few sections settles into one of two speeds: "Rushed", or "Padding". Which isn't much fun to read. It also destroys any sense of urgency or pace that the book has, which makes everything seem...inconsequential. It also loses the weight of the climax when it occurs in the last ten pages of the book, is followed by another divine intervention, and then ends on a bittersweet note that makes sense, but could have been stretched out. Similarly, the long trek through the tundra wasn't particularly needed at that length. It feels like a second draft stretched out and mistakenly published.
So in the end, while it is a beautiful book, it's too much of a mess for me to recommend. Find it in the library, give it a try for yourself, but I don't believe it's worth my time. And in the end, that's the issue. I was disappointed, and it felt like my time was a little wasted. The book feels like a setup to something else, a legend that should have been offscreen. And that's not worth reading about.
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