Escapement: The main course

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Jay Lake EscapementEscapement by Jay Lake

In my opinion, Jay Lake’s Mainspring was a novel full of great potential that was hindered by inconsistent writing and execution. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and was looking forward to reading the sequel. Happily, everything that worked so well in the first book has been retained in Escapement, while most of the problems were corrected, resulting in a greatly improved sequel that is everything Mainspring could have been and much more.

I had several issues with Mainspring — notably the description of Jay’s clockwork universe, the characters, the pacing, and the execution of certain concepts like religion and gender roles. Starting with the setting, which is one of the novels’ strengths, Lake does a much better job this time around at rendering his creation — a Victorian/steampunk — influenced alternate Earth, set in the early 1900s, where God’s handiwork is in constant evidence by the giant brass clockwork that encircles the world. Why the setting is so much more effective in Escapement is partly because of the more consistent manner in which the author details the novel’s environment including many exotic locales — Africa, England, the Equatorial Wall, Taiwan, Chersonesus Aurea, France, Mogadishu, a city of Brass Men, life onboard an airship and a submarine, etc — but also because the descriptions are more coherent. So where I had a lot of problems visualizing a specific place or object in Mainspring, the world depicted in Escapement is more vibrant and much easier to imagine.

Another reason why the setting works so much better in the sequel is because Jay Lake broadens the horizon of his world. In other words, Mainspring only gave readers a tiny glimpse of his creation backed by superficial worldbuilding, but in Escapement that glimpse becomes a panoramic vista encompassing not just the British Empire, but also China’s Celestial Empire, The Solomnic Kingdom of Ophir and such secret societies as the Silent Order and the avebianco whose purpose is to “acknowledge and preserve God’s work in the world, while advancing the labors of Man.” In addition to this widening canvas, Jay’s worldbuilding is much more thorough, including the establishment of different cultures, religions, philosophies, schools of thought (Rational Humanists, Spiritualists) and world politics as well as expanding on the misogynistic attitude that was hinted at in Mainspring. What I enjoy most about this world however, is the way Mr. Lake seamlessly integrates actual history with the fantastical like the Strasbourg Cathedral and a waterfall city in thrall to a Lovecraftian sea monster.

Character-wise, Escapement features three main protagonists rather than just the single hero found in Mainspring, and unlike Hethor Jacques who may have been likable but lacked depth and emotional connectivity, Paolina Barthes, Threadgill Angus al-Wazir, and Emily McHenry Childress are characters you actually care about. What I like about them is threefold. 1) They each have distinctive voices and personalities: Paolina is smart, but naïve, fueled by youthful determination and harbors a strong dislike toward men because of the way she has been treated. Al-Wazir is coarse and brutish with language reflecting his persona — fewk, Johnnie foreigner, fuzzy wuzzies, etc — but is extremely loyal and the kind of person you want guarding your back. Childress meanwhile, is married to her job and, while cultured, lacks any worldly experience and is naïve in her own way. 2) The characters are fully developed. So not only do we get a sense of where they came from and what they believe in, but we also get to see the characters evolve over the course of the novel. And 3), the characters are human, meaning they make mistakes, sometimes act selfishly, and are forced into difficult decisions.

Another improvement over Mainspring is the novel’s much stronger supporting cast — a major issue I had with Mainspring — which effectively complements the three main characters. Of these, I particularly liked the Brass man Boaz and the eccentric Doctor Professor Lothar Ottweill who speaks in a Yoda-like manner: “Not my problem is this,” although my favorite character in the entire book was al-Wazir.

As far as the story, I thought Escapement was significantly more rewarding than its predecessor, largely because the plotting is more complex, weaving together several different subplots and themes including a race between China and the British Empire to create a tunnel through the Equatorial Wall into Southern Earth, thought-provoking political intrigue, free will vs. a Divine plan, and so on. But it’s also because the story is more imaginative than Mainspring with a city of Brass men, an underground mechanical transport system, the aforementioned sea monster, a massive penis-shaped steam borer, and a stemwinder that measures the heart of Creation.

On top of that, the pacing is much more consistent than it was in Mainspring, and because of the three alternating narratives, the book’s tempo is actually increased along with the novel’s excitement factor. Lastly, I was really impressed with how ethnically diverse Escapement was and loved the numerous references to Mainspring including the loblolly boy Clarence Davies, al-Wazir and Childress of course, learning the final fate of the HIMS Bassett, William of Ghent, the avebianco, and the various mentions of Hethor.

As much as I hoped Escapement would be a better effort than its predecessor, Mainspring, never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate such a vast improvement. Be it prose, characterization, worldbuilding, plotting, dialogue, creativity or execution, the difference between the two novels is just staggering. To compare, Mainspring is like an appetizer, tasty and entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying, while Escapement is the main course, rich, savory and thoroughly fulfilling. In short, Jay Lake’s Escapement is highly deserving of award recognition, and recommended to anyone who loves reading.

Clockwork Earth — (2007-2010) Steampunk. Publisher: Jay Lake’s first trade novel is an astounding work of creation. Lake has envisioned a clockwork solar system, where the planets move in a vast system of gears around the lamp of the Sun. It is a universe where the hand of the Creator is visible to anyone who simply looks up into the sky, and sees the track of the heavens, the wheels of the Moon, and the great Equatorial gears of the Earth itself. Mainspring is the story of a young clockmaker’s apprentice, who is visited by the Archangel Gabriel. He is told that he must take the Key Perilous and rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. It is running down, and disaster to the planet will ensue if it’s not rewound. From innocence and ignorance to power and self-knowledge, the young man will make the long and perilous journey to the South Polar Axis, to fulfill the commandment of his God.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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