Review of Mainspring by Jay Lake


This interesting science fiction, alternate history offering is a twist on the steampunk genre that has become so popular. In Lake’s detailed world the big difference is that God has constructed a clockwork Earth that runs on huge brass runners that follow the equator in the form of a huge wall – so here is an example of clockpunk.

Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria still rules New England and her American Possessions; the Royal Navy rules the skies with its might 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 midnight by a brass Angel, and told that he, and he alone, can find the Key Perilous to rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. If he does not, the planet will wind down, and life will cease.

mainspringAnd there you have it. A classic Quest plot, complete with naïve yet obscurely talented youngster, who finds himself ranged against forces far greater than his own slender resources… Cosily familiar in so many ways. And this is no accident. In tone and plot progression, this book relies on many forerunners of the Hero Quest genre – I was reminded of H. Rider Haggard’s novels when reading this book.

Hethor is an excellent young hero, whose initial assumptions become thoroughly overturned as he progresses through a series of engrossing adventures – including a gripping interlude on an airship, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Told in limited third person POV, the success of this ambitious book lies in Lake’s storytelling skills and ability to weave a complex world through the eyes of an inexperienced youngster without losing pace. No mean feat. And one that Lake pulls off with surefootedness that marks him out as One To Watch.

It takes great technical ability to meld modern tastes with a writing style that more than nods in the direction of its 19th century forebears – and Lake avoids the pitfalls that could have so easily turned Mainspring into a stodgy-though-at-times interesting tale, or wincingly embarrassing read. And if I write that with feeling – it’s because I’ve read them when dipping into the steampunk genre, and a major reason why it isn’t my favourite sub-genre.

Lake manages to immerse us in a Victorian experience without offending modern sensibilities by reprising the darker side of colonial adventuring that makes us uncomfortable these days when we read Haggard’s hero interacting with African inhabitants. He shows the same sensibility when Hethor falls in love – it wouldn’t have taken much to have marred the whole relationship by portraying a sense of superiority by the youngster.

Any grizzles? Well – there are some jarring moments. We always have a sense that Hethor is somehow uniquely talented in being able to sense the clockwork turning of the Earth, but this specialness is never fully explored. And a couple of times, I do feel that Lake leans far too heavily on Hethor’s abilities without actually properly explaining exactly what is going on. It’s a shame, as there are so many aspects of the world-building that are so slickly executed that I don’t believe that Lake didn’t actually know what propelled Hether to be able to do these things – I think these details just got buried in the plot momentum.

During all the adventuring, I was also fascinated by the questions thrown up by the failure in Earth’s mainspring – if God is such a perfect being, why has he produced a fault in the mainspring that creates the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people? Hethor has to work towards his own answers to that question – amid his interaction with some interesting antagonists who have come to a different conclusion.

If you are a fan of steampunk or alternate worlds, then this is a must-read novel. And if you aren’t – then try it anyway. As a slice of high octane adventure in a wonderfully described alternate world it takes a lot of beating.

2 responses »

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  2. Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2010 books are _Pinion_ from Tor Books, _The Baby Killers_ from PS Publishing, and _The Sky That Wraps_ from Subterranean Press. His short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his Web site at

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