Saturday, October 04, 2008

The gears of home

kw: book reviews, fantasy, alternate history

In my earlier post Geared-up Universe I reviewed Jay Lake's first Tor novel Mainspring. At the time, his website had the provisional title of the sequel as Stemwinder, and having just finished reading it, I agree that that should have been the title. I don't know why it was changed to Escapement, the current title.

We are to imagine that one can literally see the Creator's handiwork in the heavens, as immense ring gears upon which the planets revolve about the Sun, and the Moon about Earth, and so forth. This alternate Earth is largely governed by Victoria, who has lived a bit longer than our Victoria did, and 1901 is fading into 1902. The primary rival to British hegemony is the Chinese Empire of Celestial Harmony. Both world powers use hydrogen-lofted airships as a major means of transport and projecting force afar, as the eyes aloft for their navies, and for expeditions not requiring heavy cargoes. In this new novel, the Chinese have also developed submarines, and one plays its part in the narrative.

The "albino toucan" is not the password here, being replaced by the avebianco. Of the three main clutches of characters followed here, the primary one follows a chiastic path from her home on The Wall that forms the Equator and holds Earth's geared ring, to Europe and back to The Wall. She is a new, magical Newton, an engineering genius who builds a large pocket watch, from scraps of brass given by an errant airman, using hand tools. Now, I've created replacement gears for a broke mantel clock using a lathe. Hand tools, indeed! In fact, she does so twice!!

The clocks she makes have four hands. Two follow the beat of Earth and Moon, one her own heart (a sort of Seconds hand), and the fourth can be tuned to any rhythm she can sense, then re-tune that rhythm. Her senses improve throughout.

She calls the first a Stemwinder, as the airshipman had called the pocket chronometer that was its model. Later it is called a Gleam by others, an apparently superstitious term. Our heroine uses this term for the rest of the narrative.

If the Solar System were really a great Orrery, in some way similar to the one pictured here, perhaps a Gleam would really have the powers of sympathetic magic. What is clear by the end of the book is that there is no limit to the power of the girl and her contrivance.

Lots of loose ends have been left for future books. The book opens with a British project to drill through The Wall using a pair of huge steam tunnel borers. These are left embattled at the book's midpoint, and the officer who goes for help is found at the end in Sumatra, bargaining for a way to convey his message of "help needed" to the seat of Empire. The "white bird" (avebianco) and a rival political faction are locked in a confrontation that threatens to embroil the world in warfare (imagine the Masons versus the Trilateral Commission and all those conspiracy theories coming true). And there are lots of clock parts and jargon to go through. I just wish the Escapement had not been wasted upon this one, which ought to have kept its Stemwinder label.

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