When I finished this novel's prequel, Mainspring, I wasn't so impressed with the storytelling of the novel but with its setting, something of a steampunk nirvana—an Earth with gears running about its equator guiding it on its track through the heavens. Just that idea and its effects playing out are fascinating, but only somewhat shallowly dealt with in the first novel, and so I looked forward to the second, willing to wade through clumsy characterization and dialogue to get more of an idea of this world. And then, as I read Escapement, it turns out that the characterization and dialog take a huge leap forward, making the novel enjoyable for those aspects as well as the setting that drew me in.
Instead of relying on a single protagonist, as is the case with Mainspring, Escapement interweaves the stories of three protagonists, each offering differing perspectives on the world around them. Paolina Barthes has grown up on the Wall, the massive mountain range that circles the globe at the equator in support of the gear threads. Because her community is primarily made up of shipwrecked sailors, her life has generally been miserable since they do not hold women in very high esteem. It's no help that she is gifted with incredible engineering insight, allowing her to build and repair tools that are a necessity for the life of her fellow villagers; rather than appreciating her skill, her community takes her for granted and expects her to work for their benefit without her rising the status of a worthless girl-child. So when a young English boy arrives in her village bearing a pocket-watch, her imagination is set ablaze with the power and potential of taking the clockwork that guides her world and miniaturizing it into a tool that can be held in her hand. And that work makes her want to travel to civilized lands, where such tools are commonplace.
Threadgill Angus Al-Wazir is the chief petty officer for a dirigible that crashed at the Wall and has just made his way back to England on a boat he built on his own. He finds himself summoned to the Prime Minister's office and is there recommissioned and ordered to return to the Wall to aid in efforts to build a tunnel through it to see what is in the Southern Hemisphere before the Chinese can begin colonizing there themselves. Stoic on the outside, he accepts his orders and heads back to the part of the world where he has suffered the most, serving Queen and empire.
Emily McHenry Childress is a librarian at Yale, an "old maid" whose life has been devoted to the books she cares for and the occasional efforts on behalf of a secret organization called the White Birds, whose goal is to maintain balance through the world's powers by use of knowledge and books. One afternoon, she is summoned to go on a journey for the White Birds, and so she gives up her safe life, the only one she has ever known, to travel to England and beyond.
Over the course of Escapement, these characters become well-rounded—especially Al-Wazir and Childress—as they travel about the world in order to meet what are, ultimately, self-imposed goals for serving the people they hold most dear. The structure of the novel is rigorously mechanical: each chapter is divided into three sections, one each devoted to the adventures of the three protagonists, and while that can sometimes feel restrictive, author Jay Lake does some interesting things with the plot so that often, within a chapter, the events in each character's life parallel the others. This could become somewhat heavy-handed when used by a less-skilled author, but Lake handles it delicately, so that it wasn't until halfway through that I noticed the pattern. And those adventures are a lot of fun, showing us more of the civilizations that inhabit the Wall, Europe, and even into China.
Even though the book is deeply ensconced in the steampunk tradition, through the character of Paolina, Lake is able to introduce fantasy elements that, again, could be jarring but end up working smoothly. For it turns out that Paolina is the most common of the archetypes of epic fantasy—the gifted outsider who strives to take her place within a more enlightened society. Like the peasant boy who discovers he has been touched by the gods and is destined to be king, Paolina finds that her immense engineering talent goes beyond the mundane into something of the mystical: the watch she makes with the English pocket watch as its model is so much more: instead of just recording the time and timing of the things around her, she can use it to effect those things as well. For instance, she is able to change the timing of the engines of a dirigible that follows her so that it turns the craft away from its pursuit and eventually destroys it. But being from the most backwater-y of villages, she suspects that all the civilized countries have wizards and tools with these abilities and so is determined to get more training by visiting these wizards. And when word of someone with these decidedly singular powers gets out, she becomes the object of worldwide hunt.
Unlike Childress and Al-Wazir, Paolina grows very little over the course of her adventures. Repeatedly placing her fate in the hands of someone she thinks she can trust turns out to be disastrous since those same people continuously break that trust. Nonetheless, this does not weigh down the plot since she is constantly on the run and not really given any time to be contemplative and nurtured, especially as she continues to discover the awesome reach and destructive ability of her power.
For whatever reason, this turned out to be a book I didn't want to put down. I was fascinated by the people and the world they inhabit and did not feel that the author threw any unwarranted curves. There are passages that might feel like they get away from what drives the story, but at the same time, when people live their lives, not everything in their life drives them to a single plot resolution. This picaresque nature is reflected in the narrative of Childress and Al-Wazir's travels and doesn't distract from the final chapters as everything begins to pay off. I look forward to the final book in the trilogy to continue the stories of these characters' lives and how they deal with the revelations that proceed from the conclusion of the book.