Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Why hello, alternate universe with airships; we meet again.
This was not the way I intended to start reading Jay Lake. I heard about him when Green came out and added that to my to-read list, but when I was at a used book store, Mainspring and Escapement were there, so I bought them. I always regret when my first experience with a new author I'm anticipating reading is a sour one. Sadly, Mainspring testifies to the dangers of setting a lousy story in an amazing world.
Lake takes steampunk to its logical extreme and has created a universe literally designed to function as clockwork. The Earth rotates around a mainspring (hence the title). All around the equator is a wall of mountains topped with brass teeth that mesh with an orbital track; the Earth revolves using gears. With God's craftsmanship evident in the cosmos, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the universe was designed by a Maker. Lake reinforces this when he sends a brass angel to incite his protagonist off on a quest. Nevertheless, as Mainspring unfolds, the question of the universe's origin and meaning is one of many things that are more complicated than they first appear.
I don't like Hethor. He's not that smart, not that deep, and all too foolhardy. If the fate of the world really were in Hethor's hands, as they are in Mainspring, we would be Screwed with a capital S. As it is, he manages to Screw us over (which is a good thing, what with rewinding the mainspring of the Earth) despite channelling epic fail for the entire novel. The archangel Gabriel tells Hethor he must acquire the lost Key Perilous, which he can then use to rewind the Earth's mainspring. Of course, being the cryptic messenger of God that he is, Gabriel fails to instruct Hethor how to go about doing this, or even provide a hint as to the Key's location. Hethor stumbles around the world for a few hundred pages, getting too many people killed along the way, and doesn't end up finding the Key. That's OK though, because it turns out that as long as he gets himself to the mainspring, he can rewind it anyway.
I had high hopes for Hethor at the beginning of his quest. And Mainspring is totally in the style of the epic fairy-tale quest. Hethor encounters a number of supernatural guardians he must defeat along his way to finding the Key and saving the world, not the least of which is William of Ghent, a "sorcerer" and Rational Humanist who doesn't seem to know what he wants or what Hethor wants. Lake is never entirely clear on anyone's motivations, and Hethor doesn't bat an eye when his actions cause William to fall (but not fatally) into the depths of the clockwork Earth. No, for this young boy who until a few weeks ago was a clockmaker's apprentice in New Haven, almost killing someone is par for the course.
My apathy for Hethor grew measurably at this point, and its growth proceeded apace for the rest of the book. Despite its quest-like structure, Mainspring makes Hethor into an utterly reactionary protagonist. He just goes along with whatever happens to him; it's very mellow, but it's also a frustrating lack of direction for someone who is supposed to have a very specific purpose. Although he says he is concerned about having no idea where the Key Perilous might be located, his actions (or lack thereof) tell a different story. No, Hethor, in his infinite wisdom and laziness, is content to continue following a breadcrumb trail of golden tablets that drop from the sky.
So Mainspring consists of an uninspiring main character wandering from conflict to conflict. He's supposed to be a misogynistic young prude from Victorian New England, but he has no qualms about having sex with a woman from among the hirsute people who live near the Equatorial Wall in Africa. (This entire part of the book made me very uncomfortable. I recognize that Lake challenges Hethor's internalized Victorian sensibilities about savages and the superiority of English imperialism. Still, a whole bunch of furry people killing in his name and viewing him as a kind of messenger-messiah … well, I'll leave it at that.)
The whole idea of a clockwork Earth is fascinating when expressed as a sentence, but there the romance with this fantasy must end. Lake just doesn't put enough work into convincing me his alternate world is viable. So Queen Victoria still rules the New England colonies. Why? Why are Britain and China the dominant powers? What else is different in this world where no one in the book has ever been to Australia? Instead of providing much background, Lake focuses instead on Hethor's quest, about which I'm torn. Do I not care about it because agents of a force I guess is God always seem to rescue Hethor whenever he's in peril? Do I not care because Hethor, despite not following any instructions he's given, manages to succeed anyway, and it all seems rather pointless in the end?
At first I intended to give this book two stars. However, I have struggled to think of a single positive example to balance my negative tone. I'm drawing a blank. So while I wanted to be charitable, I really can't justify it: Mainspring is disappointing, frustrating, and not all that entertaining.