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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

"Escapement" by Jay Lake

Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “Mainspring” w/Bonus Jay Lake Q&A

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Jay Lake is a science fiction and fantasy author of over two hundred short stories, four collections, and four published novels including “Rocket Science”, “Trial of Flowers” and “Mainspring”. Jay also won the 2004 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has edited several works including the upcoming “Spicy Slipstream Stories” (w/Nick Mamatas). Other upcoming releases include “Madness of Flowers” (Night Shade Books), the “Other Earths” anthology (w/Nick Gevers) and numerous short stories…

PLOT SUMMARY: 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 on the Equatorial Wall, and knows little of the world. Desperate to get to England and the knowledge available there, Paolina sets off on an adventure that brings her astounding, unschooled talent for sorcery to the attention of those deadly factions that would use her…or kill her.

Threadgill Angus al-Wazir was the Chief Petty Officer on HIMS Bassett, lost on the Wall while attempting to relieve General Gordon’s expedition. Al-Wazir survived, only to be court-martialed. But now his knowledge and experience is crucial to England’s latest project: to bore a tunnel through the Wall into the Southern Earth—an undertaking that may unleash unholy terrors upon the British Empire.

Emily McHenry Childress is a librarian at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. A spinster, she is devoted to her Library and to the avebianco, a world-spanning secret society that works to preserve and share knowledge. It was she who set Hethor on his path to rewind Earth’s Mainspring. And it is she who is being blamed for the death of William of Ghent. But when the ship carrying her to her fate is attacked, Childress suddenly finds herself the lone survivor, in a game more dangerous than she could ever imagine.

Separately and together, these three will journey far across an imaginative alternate Earth where the workings of the universe are visible, but the workings of the human soul are still mysterious…

CLASSIFICATION: Like “Mainspring”, “Escapement” is a smart, creative and distinctive blend of late 19th century steampunk, alternate history, fantasy, and science fiction with travelogue/coming-of-age elements, theology and philosophy all mixed in. Unlike “Mainspring”, “Escapement” is much more sophisticated, due mainly to the novel’s intricate plotting, complex characters, and thought-provoking world views.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 384 pages (Hardcover) divided over twenty chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the third-person via Paolina Barthes, Emily McHenry Childress, and Threadgill Angus al-Wazir in that specific order. “Escapement” occurs two years after the end of “Mainspring” and is mostly self-contained, but there are several references to “Mainspring”, and “Escapement’s” Epilogue—not to mention several unanswered questions—leaves little doubt that there will be another sequel :)

June 24, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Escapement” via
Tor Books. The eye-catching cover art is once again provided by Stephan Martiniere.

ANALYSIS: In my opinion, Jay Lake’sMainspring” 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…

Looking back at my review of “Mainspring
HERE, I had several issues with the book—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, Jay 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 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 Jay 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 some of the novel’s most creative examples. 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 & Childress of course, learning the final fate of the HIMS Bassett, William of Ghent, the avebianco, and the various mentions of Hethor :)

CONCLUSION: 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’sEscapement” is one of the best releases of the year, highly deserving of award recognition, and recommended to anyone who loves reading…


Mihai A. said...

Very good reviews for the books, Robert :) Thank you.

Anonymous said...

So is it readable without having read Mainspring?

Robert said...

Thanks Mihai!

Josh, I believe it is. You'll miss out on some references, but aside from being set in the same world and some similar themes, the two books are self-contained...

ThRiNiDiR said...

you got me hooked with this: "...a massive penis-shaped steam borer..."; now I've got to read the book :). The cover is stunning as well. I loved what you did in the conclusion - the enjoyable but unsatisfying appetizer vs. the savory and filling main dish - great metaphor.

Robert said...

LOL! Yeah, there's some nice humor in the book :) I agree that the cover is stunning. Will probably be one of my favorites once the year is over. I'm also glad you liked my concluding metaphor. I really worked hard on that :D


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