I’m not traditionally a big fan of steampunk novels. They generally involve far too much leather and steam and dirigibles for my taste, and have far too little story. The Alchemy Wars books, though, are far better than your typical steampunk story. Here’s a series that you should read, if you haven’t already!
Tregillis has crafted a thrilling trilogy that is one of my favorite alternate reality series, in the Alchemy Wars. The series starts with The Mechanical, continues with The Rising, and ends on a very high note with The Liberation.
Here’s your run of the mill premise: The world is primarily dominated by two empires: the Dutch and the French. The Dutch derive their power from what is essentially slave labor, in the form of an army of robot-like mechanicals that are powered by a combination of magic and science. The French, on the other hand, are ruling from exile, from Marseilles-in-the-West, which is located in North America. Paris has been sacked by the Dutch armies, and the beleaguered French are backed into the frontier of the New World.
These books are about free will, as much as anything. Mechanicals are compelled to obey humans (specifically Dutch humans) through geas (alchemical formulas that cause them pain and eventually agony if they disobey direct orders). The technology of this world is tied into the mechanicals–all menial labor is done by them, ships are rowed by dozens or hundreds of them, and cooking/childcare/etc. are also on the backs of the mechanicals.
But what makes this series truly fascinating to me is what happens when the chains of compulsion start to fail–first on one mechanical, then eventually on others. What happens when a society based on slaves (that don’t require any food or sleep) loses faith in their slaves? What happens when those slaves start fighting back? And what happens when the enemies of your enemies (in this case, the French) aren’t necessarily your friends? The answers to all of these questions are addressed, in great detail.
This series is a joy, and The Liberation is the best part of it. The worldbuilding that went into the previous two novels is mostly done here, just in time to let the story fill that world and reach some very satisfying places. Some of the horrifying places the previous books went (such as human-mechanical hybrids) get further fleshed-out. The characters you love and the characters you hate from the previous books die and fight and manage, somehow, to keep on living. There’s widespread carnage. There’s a great deal of surprisingly cinematic adventuring. I could easily see this story made into a series of films (and would be surprised if nobody attempted that).
The thought that Tregillis put into this narrative is readily apparent. The pieces of story from one book to the next fit together flawlessly, and I was very pleased with the final result. It isn’t a particularly short book (none of the three are), but if you’ve got the desire to read a few 450+ page novels, you could steer a lot worse than The Alchemy Wars. If it seems like I’m being a bit hyperbolic, it’s just because I’m a real fan of what the author has managed here. It’s epic, sweeping, and brilliant. I’d definitely encourage you to read them. Buy it here.
Or, if you’d rather start with the first book (you should), buy that here.
Heck, buy them all! The second one’s here.