The second book in Jay Lake’s Clockworth Earth series, Escapement is a multi-viewpoint work that brings minor characters from Mainspring back to serve in prominent roles. The world creation continues to be the best feature of this novel but the characterization problems that plagued Mainspring are mostly absent. The plot proves far more worthy of the setting with better, though imperfect, pacing and more nuanced, subtle metaphor for religion.
The book opens near the great wall that separates Southern and Northern earth. One of the crew members lost from the airship Bassett during a storm as it transported Hethor Jacques in Mainspring makes his way to a small, provincial town after wandering the wilderness for two years. The town is home to the main protagonist, Paolina Barthes, who exhibits genius level intellect and a healthy temper at the social injustices she is forced to endure (namely gender-related inequalities). After learning of the wider world from the crew member, Paolina sets out with a device of her own creation in search of England with the purpose of studying the rough equivalent of physics.
One of the best decisions that Lake made was to include two other view points that the book rotates among. While Paolina is a far more likable character than Hethor, the novel is greatly aided by the shifts in focus allowing the reader to mentally regroup and read with renewed interest. The second character is Threadgill Angus al-Wazir, chief petty officer of the Bassett prior to it’s destruction. Back in England, al-Wazir is recruited by agents of the crown to return to the great wall and aid a large team of English subjects of various nationalities in their effort to tunnel through the wall and provide England with access to Southern earth. Gruff, capable and big as an ox, al-Wazir agrees and sets off.
Early in Mainspring, Hethor meets a librarian by the name of Emily Childress who returns as the third viewpoint in Escapement. She is part of a secret society called avebianco or ‘The White Birds’ who seek to preserve the order of the world. Pursing a middle path between the two dominant religious sects of the world, Childress is a quiet, elderly women who is wrested from her sedate life. Because of the aid she provide Hethor, she is called to account for the results of his rewinding the mainspring of the world. Childress quickly finds herself on a Chinese submarine in the middle of political and religious intrigue. Forced to assume a new identity, she navigates various plots and people of whom she has little foreknowledge in an effort to prevent the Chinese empire from making a world-changing discovery.
All three characters are competent and likable. Paolina begins as a fiercely determined young woman with a plan in mind. That plan falls to pieces and she endeavors to return home after finding out that England is not all she believed it to be. Emily Childress follows something of the opposite route first being a pawn and then asserting herself as the novel progresses to greater and greater effect. While al-Wazir is unable to stem the veritable war that he finds at the English camp near the wall, he crosses paths with Paolina as he seeks additional resources to fulfill his orders as the consummate solider. All three grow and change over the course of the novel in ways that feel natural and real. Given their progressions, if any one character is unlikable the multi-viewpoint writing style offers a relief from that character in short order.
Escapement, like its predecessor, has a great set of supplementary characters as well including an eccentric German genius attempting to bore through the wall, a man made of brass from Southern Earth, a Chinese captain on the submarine Emily Childress travels on and several others. They provide various elements of comedy, purpose and thought provoking conflict during the novel.
The steampunk elements of Lake’s world are on display to great delight in Escapement. Paolina creates a watch-like device near the beginning of the book called a gleam that, much like Hethor Jacques ‘holy sight’ in the first novel, has profound and magical effects on the world around her. Her journey through Southern Earth is vivid and rich, filled with creatures found in Mainspring and a host of new additions like the brass men.
If there’s an element of the book that is uneven and potentially off-puting to readers, it is the pacing. The various characters much journey across long distances and, at times, the book is bogged down by the length of their travels. Fortunately, the three storylines never seem to suffer from this simultaneously so the book, as a whole, is able to maintain a relatively steady sense of momentum. Important introspection often takes place during the traveling periods, when Paolina travels with a brass man being a prime example, but the weight of creating the scenarios and delivering the metaphors creates a drag on the plot at times. Thankfully, the metaphors are far more interesting and nuanced than the religious metaphors that were used to bludgeon readers in the previous novel.
A denser, more complicated novel, Escapement is simply a better book in all aspects and a far better product from author Jay Lake as he returns to Clockworth Earth.
Rating: 3 out of 5