The Alchemy Wars is a series by Ian Tregillis about conscious robots enslaved to humanity and the rebellion that sets them free. As a trilogy of books this review will fill two slots on my bingo card (it’s not cheating, IT’S NOT). The Mechanical, as the first book, will fill the And So It Begins Slot and The Liberation, as the final book, will fill the This is the End slot. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but as I am reviewing all three books, there might be some light spoilers.
Robots rebelling against humans is a fairly typical sci-fi type plot, however the books are set somewhere in the 18th-19th centuries, as the ‘robots’ were first invented in the 1600’s using alchemical magic by the Dutch. As mechanical beings are far superior in combat to humans, the Dutch managed to conquer the whole world during the colonial expansion, save for the French holdouts in the New World. The French have become master chemists in the attempt to hold back the Dutch mechanicals, and the war between the two nations has been going on for centuries. At the point the series starts, the French are desperate and barely clinging on to their holdings in the Americas (with help from various Native American Tribes) and the Dutch are arrogant in the assumption of their ultimate victory. There are some philosophical differences between the Dutch and the French, as the French think that the geas binding the clakkers to the will of the Dutch masters is an abomination unto God, but honestly the war is mostly about power and controlling the world as the French do very little to act on freeing the mechanicals. Into this world the mechanical Jax looses the alchemical bindings that force his obedience and ultimately changes the balance of the world.
The Mechanical, the first book in the series, is mostly about Jax. He’s a living robot, enslaved to serve one of the Dutch families, and under a terrible geas that forces him to obey human orders and if he delays in his obedience he is subject to a terrible, horrible pain. When the book opens, he is under orders to deliver something to a priest, but before he does so he witnesses the execution of some French spies and the free mechanical who supposedly aided them. This execution draws a large crowd, as free mechanicals are almost unheard of and of course everyone loves a good execution. Before this free mechanical dies he chatters, in the secret language of the enslaved robots, “clockmakers lie” and then is thrown to the alchemical fires from which all mechanicals are formed. It’s a terrible scene that Jax wishes desperately to witness, despite the weight of his orders to visit the priest causing him significant pain. And then at the priest’s place, who happens to be the only surviving French spy, he is tasked with smuggling an object to the Americas when he goes with his current masters. This object breaks on the sea voyage over and gifts Jax with the miracle of freedom. He finds himself no longer under the geas of servility. Meanwhile, the priest is eventually discovered and is subjected to horrible experimentation by the Dutch alchemists. Meanwhile the French the spymaster Bernice has her own experimentation going with another free mechanical who is hiding out among the French.
The Rising follows the characters set up here. And introduces Jax, who has since run away, to the Lost Boys which is a society of ‘free mechanicals’. Sadly, things are not always as the story appears and Queen Mab, another free mechanical, rules over the Lost Boys using the same techniques that the Dutch do. Jax, renaming himself David, wishes to find a way to free, truly free, his people. Bernice, disgraced during a terrible incident in the first book, wants to find a way to get her honor back while also saving the French people. The poor father has been set on a mission of destruction that he cannot deny thanks to the geas that the Dutch alchemists have placed on him. Mab seeks a way to destroy the humans and rule the world.
The Liberation takes all of these various sides and throws in the chaos of Daniel and Bernice’s successful attempt to liberate the clakkers. The Dutch find themselves besieged as their mechanical slaves turn against them. As the ashes of the old world burns, the fight now becomes about who will rise to influence the new world. Will it be the kindness of Daniel or the ruthlessness of Queen Mab.
I find myself unsure about whether I like Tregillis’s novels until I’m finished with them. They’re often unpleasant to read, as he has no problem delving into some of the worst kinds of human depravity, but ultimately I think they’re worth it. I am glad I read this all in one go as I’m not sure I would have finished it at all if I had to wait between books. I think that if Tregillis starts another series I will probably wait until it’s complete to finish it, as I though the same thing about The Milkweed Triptych. That said, I really like this alt-history, steam punk robot rebellion series and I really do recommend it.