Mainspring by Jay Lake

Tor, 2007, $24.95
reviewed in Interzone 212, September-October 2007

One of the most interesting things happening in American science fiction and fantasy at the moment is the emergence of a new generation of writers through the small presses. In magazines like Polyphony and Leviathan and Lady Churchillís Rosebud Wristlet, and in chapbooks and websites, the same names keep cropping up, building a reputation, getting into Best of the Year anthologies and onto awards shortlists. Jay Lake is one of the leading lights in this circle, prolific both as author and editor, edgy and restless in style, it was only a matter of time before his novels started to appear from a mainstream publishing house. What is surprising, therefore, is how old-fashioned this novel feels. Where we might have expected something challenging, unconventional, maybe a little rough around the edges, what we get is smooth, sleek and familiar.

Itís a boyís own adventure story full of exotic locations, swashbuckling action, threats that arenít really too threatening, villains who turn out okay in the end, attacking natives, noble heroes, mysterious orientals and a young hero who comes of age, wins the girl and completes the quest all at the same time.

What makes it exotic is the steampunk setting. We are in an alternate universe that really does run like clockwork. The sky is crossed by the brass tracks that carry the sun and planets, while the earth itself is divided in two by the gigantic brass teeth of the cogwheel that keeps it on course. Our hero, an apprentice clockmaker in colonial New Haven, (the year is 1900, Victoria is on the throne and America is still part of the empire), finds himself given the unwelcome task of winding up the mainspring of the world because the universe is running down.

What makes this novel unusual is that young Hethor is given his task by the angel Gabriel. In this orrery writ large, God is manifest in the heavens, and Lake never questions religion or, indeed, uses the clockwork metaphorically to explore the regulation of life in this universe. Rather, Hethor simply accepts his task and sets off to the South Pole by way of a spell in prison, adventures aboard a naval airship, war against flying creatures, a daring crossing of the equatorial cogwheel, true love in the African jungles, and a host of bizarre encounters. Lake keeps the action moving, there is a restless pace to the narrative that you wish sometimes would just slow down long enough to explore this world. The colour is vivid, at times garish, everything is noble or dastardly or strange, coincidences abound, and God is forever dropping little gold tablets with cryptic messages at the feet of our hero to keep him on track. It is, in other words, high and exotic adventure that keeps you reading, though you are in the end left wondering why it isnít quite as satisfying as it should be.