Jay Lake’s Mainspring is a book that is better liked in faded memories than in the moment of reading it. A clumsily characterized protagonist and a meandering plot are further confounded by a rather bizarre love story. The book is the first in Jay Lake’s Clockworth Earth series and the subsequent novels are, on balance, the better novels. There are redeeming aspects to Lake’s world-building but it is overshadowed by the book’s flaws.
The book introduces Hethor Jacques, a clockmaker’s apprentice, in the opening scenes when he is visited by the archangel Gabriel. In Mainspring, the Christian beliefs of Jesus Christ are maintained simply with gears and brass. For instance, Christ dies for the world’s sins on a “wheel-and-gear” rather than the cross. Gabriel tasks Hethor with finding the Key Perilous, a religious artifact, that is needed to re-wind the mainspring, which is the mechanism that keeps the world turning and operating in the fashion it was designed. Hethor leaves his hometown to journey across continents and do battle with sorcerers in an effort to fix the mainspring.
Hethor, as a character, is difficult to like. He is written as much younger than his 16 years of age and often seems whiny and self-pitying. He sets out with nothing but his conviction in the task Gabriel has charged him with and, through a series of mishaps or, perhaps, divine interventions, tracks down his end goal. Toward the latter half of the book, he meets Aryella whose description might fit something of a human-level-intellect chimpanzee, fur and all. As the novel continues, Hethor falls in love (and all that that entails) with the animal like creature. It is unnerving and awkwardly written portion of the book that fails to pull on the heart strings in any way.
Outside of those two characters, William of Ghent is the only individual in the novel that is genuinely interesting and serves as a decent villian. William is a sorcerer of sorts, able to conjure up automatons to fight Hethor and summon visions to dissuade him on his quest. William also has connections with most of the local governments as is able to make some political maneuvers to frustrate the books protagonist as well. He believes in humanity’s ability to reshape the world once God’s mainspring fails and is a (shallow) metaphor for modern day secularists. As a character, however, he acts as a plot fulcrum reasonably well.
The world of Clockworth Earth is the only truly redeeming quality of the book. It is genuine steampunk with an interesting twist on modern religion and beliefs. As Hethor develops his “holy sight”, the ability to manipulate the world around him with his mind, it more fully fleshes out the descriptions of gears, motors and levers as creation. Had it not taken two-thirds of the book for Hethor to develop this ability, the meandering journey might have more enjoyable for the reader.
When the novel finally concludes, Hethor has won the day and is faced with a kind of existential choice. Shortly thereafter, a miraculously alive and reformed William of Ghent appears in what was a clumsy and ill conceived conclusion to his relationship with Hethor. Hethor has come to many profound realizations about himself, the world around him and his beliefs. In some ways, the subtextual messages that Jay Lake tries to deliver degrade the vehicle in which they are delivered. Had I not read the second novel, Escapement, first, I would likely not have continued past Mainspring. It is better read as a prequel than as the first book in the series or not at all.
Rating: 2 out of 5