Author: Jay Lake
I enjoyed Jay Lake's prose in Mainspring from the start and for the length of the book. Some writers clunk their way through the language. They get their point across, but words are just a tool for conveying meaning. Others use language as a fine instrument, and each paragraph hangs together in a way that not only makes sense, but can be read aloud easily. Jay Lake is a master of language, and I'm eager to read other works of his.
On the downside, his novel Mainspring works out to be a bit less worthy than the sum of its parts. Each chapter is good. Each stage of the adventure is interesting, even exciting. Lake's alternate Earth is an intriguing place. His protagonist, a 16 year old boy named Hethor, sets out on a quest, follows it through while touring the world, and succeeds all is well. But as a whole, the parts don't quite fit together. I expect his next novel will be better.
The book opens in the year 1900, in New Haven, Connecticut, when an angel appears to Hethor and tells him that the Earth is in peril, the mainspring that keeps it spinning is winding down, and Hethor must find the Key Perilous and wind it back up again. Hethor, we discover, lives in a steampunk world, just like our own world of that year, except for the gears.
Earth has gears that run along the equator, and they spring from a wall 100 miles high that blocks all but the most daring from crossing. Well, the Earth -is- a gear, is more like it, and it rolls along a sort of railroad track that is the orbit of the Earth around the sun, and the moon has its own track around the Earth, and these tracks are clearly visible to whoever cares to look up at the sky. They're made of brass.
Christ was made of brass, too. The Romans killed him on a horofix (a sort of clockwork device) instead of the crucifix in our own mythology, and thus all the churches have horofixes hanging up instead of crucifixes. But the world is pretty much the same, except where it is different. And this is one of the problems I have with the novel. Hethor lives in a New Haven that seems to match the New Haven I grew up in, and visits a college there called Yale, and reads stories by E.A. Poe. He travels to Hartford and to Boston.
The one big historical difference is that there was no American Revolution - Connecticut and Massachusetts are still colonies under England. The one big technological difference is that the British Navy uses ships of the air (hung from balloons) as well as sea-sailing ships. And I just don't believe that an Earth in which there is a wall 100 miles high girdling the world at the equator, a world in which there was no connected history in South America or Australia or Africa, would develop a parallel history to ours. So that is a major flaw.
There's lots of fun stuff in this book, particularly Hethor's steampunk adventures in a lighter-than-air British Navy at the turn of the XXth Century. But there's also contrivances that seem forced. For instance, the villains of the book are non-believers called something very much like Secular Humanists. For another, angels keep giving Golden Tablets to Hethor, incised in a language known to no man. Shades of Joseph Smith!
Once Hethor crosses to the Southern Hemisphere, it feels like Lake is just making up shit as he pushes Hethor along. Strange races, strange cities, strange ghosts, strange technologies - this world is both mechanistic and mystic, and the two sides don't fit together well. (Here's where I mention that the book brings up associations of Roger Zelazny's wonderful Jack of Shadows. I don't think Lake lifted anything from that book, but I'd be surprised to learn that he never read it.)
For character development, Lake has Hethor go through every change in the book. His beard grows. He starts off awkward with girls, and ends up losing his virginity and enjoying sex in a big way. He starts off talentless (except that he can hear the gears of the Earth failing, and others can't) and ends up with all the powers of Christ. It's a bit much.
It's worth reading, and worth waiting for more from Jay Lake.