The Rising is the second book in Ian Tregillis’ The Alchemy Wars series. I read the first book, The Mechanical, last year, and it was my favorite book of the year. So you can probably imagine I was pretty excited to get my hands on this one. Unfortunately for me, it arrived when I was hip-deep in something else and so my wife got to it first and I had to wait a while.
Light spoilers throughout, larger spoilers for the first book in the series; needless to say the end result will be “You should read both.”
Here’s the premise of the series: sometime in the … seventeenth century? Whenever Christiaan Huygens was alive; I can never remember– the Dutch invented Clakkers, mechanical clockwork servitors that they basically used to take over the world. This series is set in the 1920s or so, but it doesn’t really matter all that much because the Clakkers have so radically reshaped human history; the feel of the book is very eighteenth-century, except with these incredible enslaved things walking around. In The Rising, a servitor named Jax gained free will (Clakkers are bound by a system of rules called geasa that control their behavior, and have to obey human instructions at all times) and the book bounced back and forth between the Netherlands and the French/Catholic state-in-exile in the New World. As far as I can tell, the Dutch and what’s left of France are the two major global powers, and France has spent the entire series on the ropes.
Part of what made The Mechanical so fascinating was that the book genuinely had interesting things to say about what free will was; at one point a French spy is captured and they manage, more or less, to turn him into a biological Clakker and release him back into the wild to cause all sorts of hell, only he’s still in there and, as a human being and a former priest, isn’t so wild on missions like “strangle the Pope.” The scenes where his free will is removed are fascinating, and when it nearly happens to another character you’re genuinely scared for her. Unfortunately, the weaknesses of The Rising are squarely where the first book is so strong; Fr. Visser is backgrounded for the vast majority of the story (although the few scenes he gets are spectacular) and you don’t really ever get that fear for the main characters that was so pervasive in The Rising. There’s also little to be said about free will here; the philosophical conversations of the first book are entirely absent.
What it’s replaced with is more action, which is not really something that I can complain about, because it’s spectacularly written. The French capital of Marseilles-in-the-West is under siege by a Clakker army for effectively the entire running time of the book, and Tregillis writes some of the best large-scale battle scenes I’ve ever seen. Also a pleasure is the expansion of French commander Hugo Longchamp’s role in the book; Longchamp has one of the filthiest mouths I’ve ever seen in a novel before, and you guys know I love few things more than I love inventively-used profanity. Jax, surprisingly, isn’t in the book as much as I’d thought, and spends most of his page time either alone or around new characters. His entire arc is effectively a big spoiler so I won’t talk about it much other than to say interesting things happen and I can’t wait to see what happens with Book Three.
So: As good as The Mechanical? No. This is on my shortlist, but it’s January, and it’s not going to be my favorite book of 2016. But “Not as good as the best book I read last year” is not a complaint, especially for the second book in a trilogy, and especially when that second book sets up Book 3 in such a way that I was clawing for a time machine once I was done reading. If you haven’t read this series yet, you owe it to yourself. Go. Now. If you’ve read The Mechanical, I’m confident that you’ve already read The Rising and don’t really need my orders about it. But go read it anyway.