I discovered Jay Lake last summer, through Rocket Science, which had a slow start, but ultimately caught the pace of a good story, and satisfied me to no end. Mainspring fell along those same lines, but there was a part of me that struggled to keep up with the story until I reached the last hundred pages or so. After that, I felt that the story caught its groove, and I raced to see what was going to happen to the main characters. I don’t know if this is typical of Lake and his stories (Trial of Flowers is on my list, so I’ll find out), but so far, Lake is worth the effort that it takes me to stick with his books.
Mainspring has a wonderful premise, and a wonderful setting. The great thing is that the premise and the setting are the one and the same. I’ve heard the book described as “clockpunk,” which really means that it’s a steampunk science fiction novel, centered around clocks. The Earth is a giant clockwork mechanism, complete with tracks in the sky to carry it in its orbit, and tracks for the Moon and the other planets. The main religion of the northern hemisphere is centered on this clockwork, enough so that the characters pray to their Brass Christ. The main character, Hethor, receives a visitation by Gabriel, the brass archangel, to find the Key Perilous, to wind the mainspring of the world, because it’s slowing down. Hethor is a clockmaker’s apprentice, and is strongly in tune with time. He is so in tune with time and the Earth that he can tell the midnight is slipping; instead of falling truly at midnight, he notices as it falls seconds past the correct time. Along with the slippage of time, he notices terrible earthquakes following these errors, and realizes that he must pursue his quest to save the world.
And what a quest it is! This is a story that involves air pirates, dungeons, winged savages, a wild world in the southern half of the planet, and a quest that is half adventure, half spiritual. Where Rocket Science was a fairly traditional science fiction story, Mainspring launches itself into a fantastical world full of high imagination and daring ideas. This coming-of-age adventure may seem familiar in its structure, but that’s the only thing familiar about this story.
Lake has a knack for capturing his characters very well. I could overlook some of the secondary characters, to the point of not really caring about what happened to some of the important ones, but with Hethor and his closest companions, I was very much concerned about what happened to them. In fact, there were portions of the story near the end that nearly had me in tears, he captured them so well.
For devout readers of fantasy and science fiction, the book may be easier to digest. I’m not accustomed to having the setting of the book be so much a part of the story, and I found myself having to pay more attention than usual to a lot of the descriptions. But, as I mentioned above, I think it was definitely worth the effort to stick with it. I would recommend Mainspring to anyone who enjoys daring stories of adventure and imagination, though it’s not really intended for younger readers, despite the age of the protagonist.