Two novels, two publishers, two worlds: a little over six months in the life of one ambitious author, in a market that apparently equates writer versatility with audience confusion, as if a reader's world might collapse when faced with different types of books from the same author. From Night Shade in late 2006 came Trial of Flowers, which follows three individuals trying—in their disparate and largely corrupt ways—to save a decadent, decaying city from rogue magics and the threat of war. Then in June 2007, Tor published Mainspring, a teenage apprentice's picaresque quest to wind up the slowing mechanism of his clockwork alternate Earth.
Both books are the openings of series; both have, to differing degrees, the flavour of steampunk. Trial takes place, we are told, in "the age of powered steam and electrick spark-currents" (p. 32), where magic and the gods are fading—but still a source of danger. Mainspring, besides favouring the same spelling of "electrick," unfolds on an alternate Earth in which America remains a British colonial possession in 1900, and airships rule the skies. Here the similarities end, however, for in tone and style the two books could not be more different. Where in Mainspring Lake finds a certain uplifting beauty in his clockwork world, Trial and its City Imperishable are archetypal industrial nightmares, brimming with horrors.
Some of these horrors are to be found in a gleeful perversion of familiar fantasy types and tropes—most notably in the twisted shapes of the City's dwarves, who in Lake's narrative are not (with a few background exceptions) part of a naturally occurring race, but are born instead of mutilation and torment, inflicted in the dark over a span of years. Dwarves are stunted because—in the course of an intensive, captive education to prepare them for civil service—they are deliberately crippled, their mouths sewn shut ("around a little opening pursed for nutrition and speech, always as if poised for some pain-barbed kiss", p. 2) and their limbs tightly constricted:
To be a dwarf was to spend the years of youth boxed in agony, while the full-men walked laughing and free in the sunlight. To be a dwarf was to have your head stuffed with numbers and letters and facts until wax ran from your ears and your eyes bled, while the full-men drank and gambled and whored in the taverns and gaming parlours of the City Imperishable. To be a dwarf was to be sworn into service and a life of staring at cobblestones. (p. 11)
Other horrors lie within Lake's characters. The third-person narration is divided between three viewpoint characters, visited in rotation: Bijaz, a surly dwarf of sordid habits and much self-loathing; the foppish aristocrat Imago of Lockwood; and Jason the Factor, a highborn man whose father's mysterious downfall some years before has consigned him to a scrappy career in commerce and—in his adolescence—to the tender mercies of Bijaz:
Bijaz had sewn Jason's lips shut in a perverse echo of dwarf custom. Somewhere in the endless nights with needle and candle, Jason had discovered a taste for pain in himself, and eventually in others. (p. 2)
A story in which two of the three lead characters' tastes run to lurid, violent (and, it must be said, at times very detailed) sado-masochism is unlikely to be a cheerful one, and so this is not. Trial of Flowers dwells on its characters' larger-than-life flaws, and still more on the physical and spiritual suffering demanded of them—to a degree that might make even Stephen Donaldson wince—for the expiation of their sins, for the deliverance of their city, and for their narrative journey to become sort-of heroes. Mutilation, it becomes apparent, is not just for dwarves: one of our three is brutally gang-raped and reduced to prostitution to feed a drug addiction with a thoroughly nasty side effect, one becomes a literal dead man walking at the hands of his own sister, and the third rather delightfully gets to hear "a clattering of bones, or perhaps dice, as his ribs were torn from his chest, one by one" (p. 258).
Every victory here is hard-won, and sometimes the victories turn out to be more harmful than the defeats; in some ways this is a welcome antidote to the type of anodyne fantasy saga in which the inevitable fight against overwhelming odds ends up costing nothing more than a few aching muscles from sleeping on the ground. Yet so unrelenting is the suffering that it makes for grim and at times grisly reading. The viewpoint characters are just barely engaging enough to sustain the reader's interest, but it is a considerable relief when the plot draws them out from being simply the sum of their depravities—even if it does so largely to inflict worse upon them. The sense of their purposes coming, reluctantly and distrustfully, together—in the face of an invading army without and a new government's reign of terror within—is neatly done, and feels both welcome and earned. The prose, meanwhile, is enjoyably appropriate to its setting, producing occasional gems like a reference to a woman who has "hair the color of rotten iron" (p. 43); but it rarely soars far above the gutters it describes. Lake's cityscapes pale in (the obvious) comparison to those of China Miéville; Lake is much better with a tighter focus, dealing with telling (if sometimes nauseating) detail or with striking images, such as the "noumenal" (that is, magical) weirdness of spontaneously combusting trees that opens the novel:
The lindens along Pondwater Avenue burned, making light and shadows of their own in the moonless night. One by one the trees exploded as the sap within passed boiling point, the noise spurring the scream of panicked horses in back alley stables. Sharp-scented smoke stung Jason's eyes as bark and woodpunk swirled burning into the dark autumn sky.
No hand had set the fire, no angry curse had driven the blaze. The trees had burst into flame of their own accord. (p. 1)
The grimy mood is leavened somewhat by mordantly funny asides, like "[His] heart was not in the game. His heart wasn't even in his chest, come to think of it" (p. 212), from our aforementioned dead man walking. In particular, Imago of Lockwood—whose name, intentionally or not, echoes that of the buffoonish, comic-relief narrator whose taste for the excesses of Gothic fiction, and determination to poke his nose where it is not wanted, both bookends and provides context within Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights—brings much-needed levity with his sardonically self-deprecating wit.
Mainspring, rather intriguingly described by its accompanying publicity material as "the first major book from emerging talent Jay Lake" (there's that kindly desire to keep things simple for the punters, again—presumably they mean first from a "major" publisher), is, as I've already suggested, a very different beast. Its sixteen-year-old protagonist, Hethor, goes through many a trial himself, but his are more of the emotional variety common to coming-of-age stories: loneliness, dislocation, and an inability to talk sensibly to girls. He is, for the most part, a witness to rather than a victim of the mutilation and death that are dealt out by the forces standing in the way of his quest; the motif of physical suffering as a gateway to knowledge and power is less prevalent here, although it plays a significant role in the book's climax.
The plot, too, is much simpler than the murky manoeuvrings of Trial, and it is launched in a much more conventional way, in genre terms: Hethor is visited by a metal angel, who informs him he is the Chosen One and assigns him a world-saving quest:
"The Key Perilous is lost."
Key Perilous? Hethor had never heard of it. "I..."
"The Mainspring of the world winds down," the angel continued. "Only a man, created in the image of the Tetragrammaton, can set it right. Only you, Hethor." (Mainspring, p. 5)
What is less conventional is the world itself, whose nature is integral to the quest. This alternate Earth, and all the heavenly bodies around it, operate by means of clockwork, their orbits dictated by the great brass tracks along which they move. The terminology and theology of clockwork pervade the characters' language and frames of reference, like a Christ whose "horofixion" was a self-sacrifice on wheel and gears, undertaken on a previous occasion when the Earth's rotation was slowing down. Hethor begins the story as a clockmaker's apprentice; "The holiest of arts, clockmaking," another character remarks to him, "Imitating the Tetragrammaton in His wisdom. Arranging the hours of a man's life as He chose to arrange the universe" (p. 80). He has the rare ability to hear these mechanisms at work wherever he is, something normally only possible close to the wall that divides the safe, civilised Northern Earth from the wild, feared South.
The obstacles facing Hethor lie less in human failings and corruption than in supernatural creatures and metaphysical dilemmas: his adventures take him to strange lands and through stranger skies, to places where winged beasts attack the airship on which he travels, and where he must divine the true nature of what is required of him when he reaches his goal. All the while, a succession of ambiguous adult figures, recognising Hethor's unique power, try to win him over to their philosophical standpoints, variously urging him to let the Mainspring run down—to prove the non-existence of God or to free mankind from His tyranny—or to re-wind it to restore the proper ordering of the world. (Unlike many fantasy worlds, this is one whose inhabitants have more than a passing acquaintance with debates about rationalism and religion.)
But issues of order, freedom, and choice colour Hethor's life from the very beginning of the novel. The biggest difficulties he faces—at first—stem from the impersonal functioning of a deeply hierarchical society that has no space in it for mobility or non-conformity, a rigidity that rather neatly echoes the mechanical heavens. His position as an apprentice is a heavily constrained one. His master's son, Pryce, takes away Hethor's precious token of the angel's visit—a silver feather—with all the casual disdain of social privilege and a comment that "an apprentice has no business with such a thing in his possession" (p. 13). Pryce also says:
"Angels no more touch the lives of ordinary boys than do kings and princes. Less so, for kings and princes walk the Northern Earth, while angels are just metaphors for God's divine agency within His Creation." (p. 12)
Until he gets embroiled in the angel's quest, however, Hethor has at least the prospect of greater freedom before him, should he advance to journeyman and beyond, and it is with an unconscious privilege of his own that he can gloss this awareness with, "But for now, he was as powerless as any woman or child." Hethor has been brought up to believe, for example,
that women were flighty, hysterical, unreliable—they had their monthlies. Every boy was warned of that, in whispered rumor if not in the classroom. It was simple biology, not an artifice of society like the snobbery that had condemned Hethor in the eyes of Pryce. (p. 40)
The point—Hethor's inability to empathise with those who are (in his mind) unlike him, even when their positions are parallel—is well made, and one that becomes a recurring problem in the process of his growing-up, even if its expression here lays on the irony at his expense rather too thickly. This problem is played out at greater and more subtle length in his dealings with Arellya, one of the self-identified "correct people," a hunter-gatherer society on the other side of the Equatorial Wall. Even when he learns to speak her language and the two of them embark on a sexual relationship, Hethor still thinks of her as Other, and consequently as something fundamentally inferior—and disposable—to him. After a night of out-of-wedlock sex, he reassures himself:
A half-guilty, half-relieved thought darted through his mind. She wasn't even human. He knew boys at New Haven Latin who'd had the pleasure of sheep, and even Grotty Matthews who everyone said had mounted his father's mare. No one thought them sinners—ridiculous, to be sure, but not fallen. (p. 269)
There can be little doubt that Mainspring is pitched rather differently than Trial of Flowers. Besides its hero—who, though drawn with a brave degree of dislikeability, is ultimately of the farmboy-with-a-destiny model—it is also constructed with an eye to faster pacing and simpler stylings. Hethor occasionally sounds rather pompous for a sixteen-year-old, using language that an educated teenager might be expected to recognise, but perhaps not to resort to in overawing social situations. ("I must do it myself, and trust to the Viceroy's wisdom to see through my unsophisticated veneer" [p. 49], he says, on the verge of the first encounter with someone of genuine power in his young life.) More pleasingly, there is a vivid attention to the incidental sensory details of Hethor's experiences that anchors them nicely for the reader, particularly in the area of food. Overall, though, the prose is lightweight and rather workmanlike—an interesting contrast with the Big Ideas under examination, especially towards the end, and with the slower Trial of Flowers—but it works reasonably well for the type of story, which has a sufficient share of quirky ideas and dizzying vistas to carry the day:
The Earth curved away below him, as if to replace the lost curve of the horns of brass in the sky. Clouds dotted the ocean like the sheep had dotted the meadow that morning. He could see the shimmery blue of daylight down there. Yet when he raised his eyes, he saw stars surrounded the moon's track, which in turn gleamed bright as he'd ever known it. Hethor thought he might reach out and touch it.
This was what the eyes of God saw. (p. 154)
Comparison, in this sort of review, is as inevitable as it is probably unhelpful when dealing with such different books. Certainly, Trial of Flowers, for all that it was frequently a gruelling read, left a deeper impression—at least on this reviewer—than did Mainspring. The latter, while thematically the more ambitious of the pair, is a little too frothy and conventional in execution, lacking the compelling edge of the former. Yet reading the two side by side gives a much clearer idea of—and admiration for—Lake as a writer.
Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, UK, where she is using her PhD funding to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She has previously written for SFX and Emerald City, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.