Mainspring is a grand and glorious adventure, an epic journey of imagination the likes of which I haven't often seen. 2004 Campbell winner Jay Lake takes the whole steampunk thing about as far as it can go, envisioning an entire universe of clockwork. Then he employs it in the service of a breathlessly exciting tale that takes the best old-school storytelling and the most vivid contemporary world-building sensibilities and spot-welds them together. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs or Philip José Farmer meets China Miéville or Ian R. MacLeod, by way of religious allegory. I'd call the book perfect were it not for Lake's regrettable tendency to activate the cheat codes whenever the going gets a little rough. Still, Mainspring is always gripping and often dazzling in its vision.
The story opens at a time roughly equivalent to the beginning of the 20th century. In Lake's rivets-and-sprockets universe, the Earth orbits the lamp of the sun on great brass tracks laid down by God himself, a purely deistic entity who abandoned his celestial engineering project upon its completion. (Lake is probably the first guy I've seen to do something intelligent with the notion of "intelligent design".) But the mainspring that drives the Earth's revolutions and rotations is winding down. Lake's masterstroke is in the ontological arguments that his people throw back and forth. The Rational Humanists, who want the mainspring to wind down so that humanity will be "freed," are at loggerheads with the Spiritualists. There's no actual atheism in Lake's world, since the mechanisms of God are unmistakably there to see, but there is no end of bitter feuding over what God's actual purpose might be. That so many people in this world are under a kind of spiritual malaise even with irrefutable proof of a "higher power" gives Mainspring a sense of philosophical authenticity.
It falls to Hathor Jacques, a teenage clockmaker's apprentice in New Haven, to save the world. Hathor is visited by the archangel Gabriel, who instructs him to locate the Key Perilous and wind up the mainspring. But the Key Perilous is dismissed as a myth, and Hathor is mocked for his revelations and thrown out of his master's house. Finding unlikely allies in a group of people united under the codeword "albino toucan," Hathor is instructed to contact William of Ghent at the viceroy's court in Boston. But there he is imprisoned, then press-ganged into the crew of a royal navy airship. There his adventure truly begins.
There's never an answer why a humble young apprentice would be the one called upon by an archangel to save the world, except for the convention that in these kinds of adventures, heroes are most always humble and are in fact chosen for their very humility and smallness in the scheme of things. The message, as always, is that the lowest among us can aspire to greatness. Yeah, Lake isn't entirely subtle about Hathor's role as Christ-figure (after all, the previous person whose job it was to rewind the mainspring was Jesus, here called the Brass Christ). Late in the story, Hathor does attract a set of what you might call "disciples," and even his own Mary Magdelene in noble-savage guise. But the allegory is never as annoyingly didactic as it could have been.
What's more problematic is grokking the motivations of several of the supporting characters. There's really no reason I could fathom for a character like Librarian Childress to have chosen to believe and aid a lowly apprentice with a crazy story who's openly violating the rules of his apprenticeship by coming to the library in the first place, other than that Lake's story requires that somebody give Hathor his first batch of clues. Still, I kind of liked the weird tension created by the fact that as the story progresses, we're never quite sure whether certain of Hathor's companions — like Malgus, the guide who abandons Hathor the first chance he gets — are friend or foe. He is also plagued by terrifying winged humanoids who alternately attack and assist him. Hathor's entire existence is being uprooted by his experiences, and Lake does everything in the writer's book o' tricks to enhance that feeling of being lost and confused, a stranger in a strange land.
But one cheat I had the most problem with involves Hathor's gaining what appear to be powers of pure magic, through his affinity with the earth and his ability to sense the inner workings of all things. This allows Lake a few too-easy ways to get Hathor out of scrapes. Lake had done such marvelous work establishing this glorious, logical, mechanistic universe. To have Hathor suddenly go all Gandalf (or Jesus, as the case my be) and create miracles by acts of will when the story required them just felt out of place.
Still, Lake does convey with consummate skill what a draining ordeal Hathor's adventure really is. Hathor is a marvelous protagonist and your sympathies are with him all the way.
And what a world he must survive! I don't think I've read any passages as purely jaw-dropping as Hathor's airship flight up the miles-high Equatorial Wall, along which the gears of the Earth carry it in its orbit. It's a phantasmagoric realm of vertical forests, scary monsters and lost cities that make Burroughs' Opar look like a trailer park. It all makes you salivate to think what WETA Digital would do with it. The eerie, mystery-shrouded southern hemisphere, where the civilized people of the north have very rarely tread, is no less stunning. Hathor's odyssey takes on the often-oppressive, dreamlike qualities of the boat trip in Apocalypse Now. There's a real sense of progression from light to dark, safety to danger, as Hathor nears his quest's end. Again, had Lake not muted the full effect with his various storytelling cheats, it would have been perfection.
Despite my reservations, Mainspring is a story I feel fortunate to have read. It has imagery that will stay with me for years, and an honest understanding that the most important achievements are those that come with the most painful of costs. If you've been hankering for the kind of sweeping high adventure that absorbs you wholly in a time and place that never was, Mainspring is just the key to wind you up.