The third instalment of Tregillis’s Alchemy Wars trilogy wraps up the stories with lots of death more non-consensual brain surgery and a tense climax. Some spoilers below.
What a weird world Tregillis has built. To recap; several hundred years ago, the Dutch somehow combined alchemy and clockwork and created mechanical people known as clackers. These indefatigable machines powered an industrial revolution but one based on servitude. Their forces swept away European opposition except for France, whose advanced expertise in chemistry allowed it some defence from the Dutch robotic armies.
In the books, the only unconquered French territory left in ‘modern’ times is in North America in what we would call Quebec. Despite the advances in technology both France-in-exile and the Dutch empire remain culturally stuck in the 17th century.
Inadvertently one clacker known as Jax/Daniel has gained his free-will and his efforts to avoid capture and destruction precipitate events across Europe and the New World.
In this final book, Jax/Daniel takes something of a back seat. Now seen as a messianic figure by his fellow automatons, Jax/Daniel is struggling to maintain an ethical balance as chaos descends on two ageing political powers.
The story itself revolves around a battle of will between three powerful (and to varying degrees amoral) women: Bernice, the disgraced French spymaster; Anastasia, the chief of the Dutch clockmaker’s secret police; and Mab, the queen of the rogue clackers living in the sub-artic wastes of North America.
Tregillis manages to evoke some empathy for each of these characters despite them being awful people in multiple ways. However, Tregillis has some skill with morally ambiguous characters and hence it is less surprising that Jax/Daniel gets less time in this novel. While Jax/Daniel is unsure of whether he is a good person, that very doubt is what marks him out as distinctly different from the people around him. Consequently, the moral focus of the story shifts away from Daniel (whom the readers know is essentially good) to Bernice.
Bernice has to face the consequences of her decisions from earlier books as events become increasingly terrible. In particular, her vivisection/dismantling of a rouge clacker in book 1 has consequences both physical and emotional. While her other actions to try and defeat the Dutch clockwork army in Book 2, now play out as a revolution that endangers all of humanity.
The three books together are essentially a single novel. While the story never reaches the same mind-twisting heights that Tregillis’s Milkweed Trilogy did, overall it is more consistent in style and plotting and provides more rewards in terms of story earlier. There are cliches in terms of portraying a revolution – in particular Queen Mab’s role as the revolutionary leader of an enslaved people who is actually just-as-bad-if-not-worse as the oppresses. However, it doesn’t shirk from depicting a necessary destruction of a corrupting system as requiring that complete destruction.