Review of Pinion by Jay Lake
by Jay Lake
I seldom read an entire trilogy consecutively. Although it's nice to read the books relatively close together, I usually intersperse a series with other books, just to give me time to absorb the latest instalment. I didn't do that with the Clockwork Earth trilogy, and that has thrown a certain emphasis on the series I might otherwise have missed. It has made more stark the separation between Mainspring and the final two books; Pinion as a direct sequel to Escapement makes Mainspring seem that much more like some kind of distant prequel. Furthermore, the entire trilogy just seems lighter—in terms of plot, not mood—than your average fantasy series. My experience overall, despite the utter failure of Mainspring, has been positive. Yet I have to complain about how little happens in these books.
In Pinion, Jay Lake continues with his multiple third-person perspectives that he began in Escapement. In addition to following Paolina, Childress, and al-Wazir, we follow Wang, Boaz, and Kitchens. There's an entirely new character, Gashansunu, who comes from Southern Earth. Oh, and Hethor's back—but don't worry, he's just an NPC! As a wise mentor figure, he's less annoying; maybe it's the added amount of cynicism about God's involvement in the world. The character perspectives may have multiplied, but the amount of action has not.
Once again, the characters are bouncing back and forth across and around the world, at the mercy of a slightly hyperactive plot. Paolina arrives in Southern Earth but promptly returns to find Boaz, commandeer another airship, and help Kitchens with his particular duty. Childress, al-Wazir, and Wang are the most purposeful of all the characters. The former two are still aboard the Five Lucky Winds, bluffing their way toward Valetta and the council of the Feathered Masks. Wang is following them in a ship crewed by "dead men" while he's plagued by a "ghostly" monk. Boaz, like Paolina, is a little bit all over the place. He's near Mogadishu, then he's back near the drilling station … he's found the Sixth Seal, and he considers bring it to Ophir, but then he reunites with Paolina. I don't insist on having a linear plot, or even a plot that makes much sense. But I need something that doesn't feel like a pseudo-random patchwork quilt, and Pinion doesn't deliver that.
Getting inside the perspective of Gashansunu, a woman of the Southern Earth raised to be a sorceress since birth, couldn't have been easy. She is the Other, but unlike the Correct People from Mainspring, we aren't learning about her through the perspective of another Northern Earth inhabitant like Hethor. Nevertheless, she reminded me too much of Arellya, Hethor's lover and resident Correct Person smartass from Mainspring. Both are smug and sure of their own mystical models of the world, which causes a certain amount of insouciance toward naive Northern Earthers. Both attach themselves to a wielder of power from Northern Earth, Arellya to Hethor and Gashansunu to Paolina, mentoring that person even as they themselves learn about their worlds through the eyes of aliens. And again, there's that uncomfortable vibe—in Gashansunu's case, she is literally subsumed into Paolina. That's a little creepy.
I think my favourite parts were those with Kitchens. He was a very minor character in Escapement, and I really didn't give him a second thought. It was a surprise to see him have a major role. He's more than just a bureaucrat; he also works with a blade, if you catch my drift. Maybe it's just my penchant for absurd British humour, but I love his interactions with Boaz once they're aboard the Erinyes and later the Chinese airship they rename Stolen. And Kitchens is a perfect example of something I began to appreciate in Escapement that became integral to Pinion.
All the characters in this book have one thing in common: they are thrust totally, hopelessly outside their milieu. With Paolina it's obvious; she leaves the only home she has ever known for an inclement outside world that cares more about wielding her power than teaching her how to control it. Childress has spent the past decades as a university librarian. She serves the white birds in a minor capacity—and now she finds herself impersonating a Mask, learning Chinese, and persuading a Chinese captain to go AWOL for the sake of seeking peace. Talk about a turnaround! Wang the Cataloger, also a librarian of a kind, turns into a kind of bounty hunter searching for Childress and chatting up ghosts.
Kitchens is emblematic of being pushed beyond his ordinary boundaries. He's a special clerk for the Admirality, and we learn he has some skills beyond pushing papers. Yet he's never left England, much less gone to the Wall. He's not a smooth political operator, nor is he much of a leader, as we see from his interactions with Boaz and McCurdy. Then, of course, there's Kitchens' meeting with Queen Victoria and the chain of events set into motion by that.
I knew there had to be something weird going on with Victoria the moment Kitchens visited Blenheim. And when the started talking about the smell of morgues, it was obvious something ickily steampunkish was involved. I was already picturing tanks and cables and oddly-coloured fluids. Still, Lake does a great job capitalizing on this anticipation and realizing it in words. Kitchens' meeting with Victoria is one of the deepest, most dramatic moments in the book. And it highlights how different this Clockwork Earth is from our own.
That being said, I really would have liked to learn more about who made the decision to prolong Victoria's life in such a ghastly way. It's implied (or at least I inferred) that the Prime Minister, while aware of the status quo, was not the prime architect of it. Once again, the details that I yearn for about this alternative Earth are missing, and I have to make do with what Lake gives me. It's frustrating, especially because what he does make available is just so good, so tantalizing.
Pinion has a lot of good qualities going for it, and it also suffers from flaws similar to the previous two entries in this trilogy. It's almost tied with Escapement for my favourite of the three books, but if I had to choose, Escapement would win, because Pinion's conclusion is hurried and disappointing. It doesn't strike the right tone. Instead of being triumphant, it's messy. Instead of being tense or suspenseful, it's boring. Lake scattered plenty of foreshadowing throughout the book, but when we finally realize the culmination of all the hints, I was just waiting for the story to finish.
I wish I could be head-over-heels about the Clockwork Earth. It's a lovely premise, but like so many premises, the actual execution is lacking. It's about a divided planet, a war between the rational and the spiritual in a world where the craftsmanship of a Creator is apparent. And some of Lake's characters—Paolina, Childress, al-Wazir, Kitchens—are entertaining and manage to earn my sympathy. I liked the characters, and I liked the world … but those alone did not manage to carry me through a less-than-satisfying story. Escapement and Pinion entertained me, but they didn't really engage me. Your mileage might vary, though.