the Little Red Reviewer

The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

Posted on: March 16, 2015

the mechanical tregillisThe Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis

Published March 10th, 2015

where I got it: received ARC from the publisher (thanks Orbit!)










in an alternate history where the Dutch scientist and mathematician  Christiaan Huygens made more than just clocks and lenses, the world was changed forever when his clockwork servitors were perfected. These Clockwork servants, owned by the Crown and leased to the populace on 99 year leases, allowed the Dutch Empire to expand their control over trading posts, exploration, and world politics. Of course you’ll come to rule the world when you have an unlimited workforce that never sleeps, doesn’t have to eat, and never complains, and mechanical soldiers who never die.


Hundreds of years have gone by since the Guild of Horologists was created in 1680. America never existed, the Dutch never gave up New Amsterdam (which you know as Manhattan), and France is in shambles after a disastrous war, with much of the French nobility living in Montreal with their exiled King.


In an alternate history that never was, physics and chemistry fight horology and alchemy for control of the belief structure of the modern world. I’ll leave the plot chat to other reviewers, because I want to talk about everything that’s happening in The Mechanical underneath the plot, things like Tregillis’s genius treatment of chemistry vs alchemy,  warring philosophies over free will and identity, and the intersection of faith and compulsion.

During production within the secretive Guild compound, the Servitors, known colloquially as clakkers,  are imbued with a geas. A geas is a compulsion, something you have to do.  In a similar vein to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the main geas the clakkers have is to not allow people to come to harm. Any request of their owner becomes a command with a geas, and clakkers get very antsy when not able to honor whatever geas they are currently under, whether it is something easy like “bring me a dozen eggs from the market”, or something down right impossible “help me fly”. On the one hand,this goes beyond slavery and into mind control. on the other hand, the clakkers are just clockwork robots whose programming is alchemical rather than mechanical or electrical.  Maybe what this is is something that’s not exactly black and white.


The French are constantly trying to find ways to destroy the soldier clakker models. Bullets don’t work, neither does hot oil or cannons. The alchemical magics and the geasa to kill means the soldier servitors can’t allow anything as small as a cannonball to stop them. I thought it was absolutely brilliant that Tregillis had the French use bolas and quick set epoxy glues to stop the metal killers. In a classic case of science fiction dovetailing beautifully with fantasy, not even alchemy can get through quick set epoxy, and the French scientists are constantly trying to come up with epoxies that set faster and faster. That was so damn genius that i need to say it again: The guns that shoot glue is freakin’ brilliant. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention!


The French have another secret weapon against the Dutch. They have Lilith, a  clakker who has survived escaping her geas. She won’t tell them how she did it, and to a point, they respect her wishes.  Until they can’t wait any longer to convince her, and against her wishes and without her consent, they, well, they do something to her.  That was a difficult, and quite literally torturous scene to read. After that, how I was I supposed to have any respect for the person who did that to her? (But Lilith is a clakker! She’s not a person, so that’s different, right? And now I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about this whole thing. Damn you Tregillis!) The French scientists need to see how she’s put together so they can figure out to poison her fellow servitors. Is it any wonder Lilith  doesn’t want to help them? Maybe that alone is what proves that she does indeed have free will: she refuses to allow herself to be used towards the destruction of her own kind.


Having enjoyed Tregillis’s Bitter Seeds, I expected this new book to be much darker. That’s not to say that The Mechanical isn’t dark, because it most certainly is. There is plenty of torture, deception, soul destruction, and inhumanity. Tregillis seems to introduce and frame what is happening in a somewhat gentler way. (and speaking of introduction, just wait till you meet Anastasia Bell. I think she could give Glotka a run for his money) Similar to the idea of Bitter Seeds, characters in The Mechanical are continually stepping further and further away from their own humanity. To win a war and prove that you are in the right, how high is too high of a price? When the existence of your country, your worldview, and your culture is at stake, is any price to high?


A funny little  nitpick about The Mechanical – often times the clakkers just about freak out when they can’t complete their geas. Maybe traffic is heavy, or someone else has asked them to do something. In the manner of an impatient child, they fidget and tap their feet. In many scenes, furniture, floors, and staircases are scraped up damaged by the fidgeting and vibrating of clakkers who are under physical and mental strain due to unfulfilled geasa. Who pays for that damage? Is there clakker insurance, where if the clakker scrapes up the marble floor of the church, does the Pastor send the repair bill to the Guild? If I had a clakker and it’s fidgeting scraped up my hardwood floors, I don’t think I’d be leasing another one any time soon.


There is quite a bit of discourse in The Mechanical that involving discourses religion and philosophy. Some of these discussions are obviously meant to serve as world building and to offer some historical education for the reader. Others give depth to characters, so as readers we understand why someone does the things they do. Other discussions of free will and philosophy happen entirely between the lines, with no words needed at all. And on the  note of philosophy and faith, where is the line between what your beliefs compel you to do, and what an alchemical geasa compels you to do? If Tregillis wanted to complicate every conversation anyone has ever had on the subject of free will, he’s succeeded.


The Mechanical is the first in a new trilogy, so here’s hoping that the next books in the series continue these philosophical discussions. I am most curious to see about how the conversation changes when the tables are turned.

7 Responses to "The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis"

I’m really beginning to regret passing this one over. Every review I read for it tells me that I made a big mistake with that one. Ah well, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s not like I can’t buy a copy for myself in the future. 🙂


I ADORED this book. Probably my favorite Tregillis novel so far. Love how he blended fantasy, steampunk and philosophical discussion. Where else could I have gotten a fix like that?

Liked by 1 person

I have Tregillis on my TBR and REALLY need to read him!


I loved this and thought Anastasia Bell could give Locke and Jean a run for their money in terms of creative cursing. Can’t wait for the next one of these – so should I read Bitter Seeds?? Do you think I’d like it???


Berenice has quite the insults too. More than once I laughed my ass off at something that came out of her mouth.

Bitter Seeds is a fantastic book, but very hard to read. I recommend it to everyone, yet I haven’t been able to read further in the series. Go read my review, and see if it sounds like something you’d like.


If you can get hold of Something More Than Night, I highly recommend that one too.


I suppose I will have to dig into this, if he’s going to be all philosophical and stuff. Also, I love the Dutch for no particular reason. I could probably do without darkness and soul-sucking right now, but I guess there’s no free lunch.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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