Mainspring – Jay Lake


(Tor Books, Mass Market Paperback, May 2008 ISBN: 978-0-7653-5636-9)


Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria still rules New England and her American Possessions; the Royal Navy rules the skies with its mighty airships; and Earth still turns on God’s great brass gears of Heaven as it makes its orderly passage around the Lamp of the Sun from Midnight to Midnight and Year to Year.

In the town of New Haven, a Clockmaker’s young apprentice is visited at midnigh by a brass Angel, and told that he, and he alone, can find the Key Perilous to rewind the Mainspring of Earth. If he does not, the planet will wind down, and life will cease.

I’ve steered clear of Steampunk up until this point, not out of any particular prejudice, but more because it has its roots in the era of industrial revolution and that’s not, generally, a period that I’ve ever been drawn to. So when Jay Lake’s ‘Mainspring’ fell into my lap (a reward for being his 500th follower on Twitter), I wasn’t sure what I’d make of it.

I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be such an intriguing, compelling story.

The main character is as engaging as he is innocent, and the world he explores is a fascinating and well-envisioned parallel of the familiar Victorian-industrial era, coherent and by turns dazzling and terrifying in its differences.

The attitudes and social mores, the obsessions with order and outward propriety are both familiar and therefore credible links from our own recognised history into this world, and serve to set up the conflicts in which the main character, Hethor (the clockmaker’s apprentice), struggles to unravel the mystery set for him by the angel, and to work out which of the powerful figures he encounters along the way he can trust.  Hethor’s quest is simple enough: to find the Key Perilous and wind the Mainspring of the Earth, but the lack of information available to a boy with no social standing and little education AND the active opposition of theological factions, imperial ambitions and the physical barrier of the ‘Wall’ – an equatorial division on which the mechanism of the Earth turns, where heaven and earth meet – all deepen the conflicts and confusion Hethor must overcome if he is to realise his purpose. The storytelling is subtle, apparently random events driving the plot towards its climax, an unexpected realisation that flows in a satisfying way from the individual Hethor has become over the course of his various trials.

Hethor is an intriguing character. In his naivete and innocence, his lack of awareness and education, there are strong echoes of de Troyes’ Percival (indeed, there is a minor character called de Troyes – coincidence? I wonder…).  The overtones of both the chivalrous quest for the Holy Grail and darker, more Wagnerian interpretation of the story (Parsifal) in the construction of Hethor’s character work well with the religious nature of the task he has undertaken. His status as the ‘pure fool’, unknowing and unformed, does, of course, mean that we learn about this world alongside him, and as his learning and development evolves out of his experiences, so too does our understanding and interpretation of the societies, situations and characters that push the story along. His evolution into an almost Christ-like figure – a man with wordly knowledge and understanding and yet still set apart by a simplicity of thought and behaviour – with magical/mystical powers of connection to the mechanisms that drive the Earth and all within/upon it develops naturally out of the callow boy we meet at the beginning – the first clues to this potential sown early on, and refined through the trials and treachery that envelop him right up to that moment of final realisation. In places, his naivete is frustrating – in the early stages of the story, he places his trust too easily and walks into traps with a wide-eyed stupidity, which undermines, to a degree, the later demonstrations of intelligence. Of course, a more charitable interpretation is that those early betrayals forge the determined and intelligent man of the latter stages, but the initial perception persists. His progression from simple (manipulated?) boy to a man confident in his own understanding and abilities comes with the transition from his rational, ordered existence in the Navy in the Northern hemisphere over the equatorial wall to the chaotic, factional, fractured societies of the Southern hemisphere, a powerful dividing line in so many ways in this story, not least of which is the evolution of Hethor’s magic.  The form his powers take is absolutely consistent with the world with which we are presented.  His magical abilities are hinted at, the potential is touched upon, but never fully explored in the Northern hemisphere, and only in the South, beyond the equatorial Wall, do these (conveniently) take on their full form and allow him to overcome the barriers of language, culture, technology and climate that are set in his path. Again, I think there is an understanding that the escape from the ordered restrictions of the Northern hemisphere sets him free and allows these powers to blossom in the less rational, more mystical and intuitive culture in which he finds himself, but there is, nonetheless, a touch of deus ex machina about its manifestation in a couple of places. 

With the evidence of Divine workmanship on permanent, incontrovertible view in this clockwork world, atheism is an untenable position. However, theological factions exist in terms of the interpretation of Divine Intent – Rational Humanists, who claim god abandoned the world after creation and the world should therefore be freed of god, and a more spiritual faction who believe the Divine manifests in the ordinary, that god still has a care for his creation. Our earliest encounter with a Rational Humanist – the clockmaker’s son – sets them up as the natural enemy of both Hethor and his quest, and this perception is borne out with the arrival of William of Ghent. What is interesting is that William of Ghent is a magician and a prophet, a position that seems to sit strangely with the scientific precision of the faction he represents. It works, though, because the ambiguity means that right until the end, we are never sure that Hethor has judged him correctly. It works on other levels, too, particularly in terms of linking back to Wagner’s Parsifal, where William of Ghent could be interpreted as the magician Klingsor, though the impact of Hethor’s ultimate wisdom and compassion upsets that interpretation to an extent.  The opposing faction, the mysterious ‘white birds’, are never fully glimpsed, but their agents assist Hethor at every turn, rescuing him from some seemingly impossible situations. This more spiritual, mystical interpretation of the Divine again echoes back the legend of the Grail, and also offers an interesting comment on our own society’s conflicts between the rather hard-edged obsession with rational, scientific progress and a more spiritual, earth-centred stability/sustainability, and it’s interesting to see this expressed and explored in this novel. 

The two factions also demonstrate the conflicts and hypocracies within the Northern hemisphere society (and absolutely consistent with Victorian double-standards), contrasting a requirement for outer order and conformity with a hidden, internal chaos. This contrast is emphasised and deepened by the equatorial Wall dividing the Northern and Southern hemispheres where the reverse is true in the civilisation in which Hethor finally comes to rest. Although boundaries are blurred between human and animal, outward chaos is contradicted by inner calm, coherence, acceptance and, ultimately, love. I didn’t expect the romantic elements of the story to develop in the way that they did, but the relationship between Hethor and Arellya develops out of their mutual understanding and ability to communicate, mixed with a sense of curiosity, eagerness and simplicity the two of them seem to share. It’s effective and convincing, but also offers a wider comment on how a culture judged as uncivilised or primitive can actually have more coherence than those that attempt to detach themselves from the basic rhythms of life.

The juxtaposition of these two views of civilisation not only provides Hethor a framework in which to understand and question the values he has been inducted with, but also offers an interesting comment on the interpretations of Victorian analyses of civilisation and social structures from a contemporary perspective: are the societies we label as uncivilised truly so, or is it we who are the savages? The answer Hethor finds is not, perhaps, what one would expect, but it is internally consistent.

Is it a straightforward re-telling of the Grail, or Wagner’s Parsifal? No, not by any means. It draws on elements of both to set the stage, but the internal complexities of the world in which the story plays out make this quest something else altogether. It’s a riveting read, a layered story of contrasts and conflicts that come together in the end to create an exciting and satisfying finale. I loved every minute of it.


3 Responses to “Mainspring – Jay Lake”

  1. 1 Alan

    I read it and enjoyed it, though I have to say I didn’t get as much out of it as you. Puts the book in a whole new light, it does.

  2. now in my rss reader)))
    internet signature:

  1. 1 [links] Link salad escapes from New York |

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