Book Review: The Liberation by Ian Tregillis
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Book 3 of The Alchemy Wars
Publisher: Orbit (December 6, 2016)
Length: 464 pages
I pondered for a couple days how to rate The Liberation. I definitely liked it more than the previous book, but probably not as much as the first one so in the end I decided to split the difference. In any event, there’s no denying this was a fantastic conclusion to a brilliantly crafted trilogy. Bravo, Ian Tregillis, bravo!
Set in the early 1900s, The Alchemy Wars is an alternate historical steampunk series featuring France and Netherlands at war. That the outcome of the conflict will be decided by the might of the Dutch’s powerful clockwork automaton army was already a foregone conclusion—though no one on either side had expected the twist of events that would ultimately lead to the fate of both nations hanging in the balance. For you see, those so-called mechanical “Clakkers”—who were supposed to be mindless and utterly loyal and obedient to their human masters, according to their creators—actually turned out to be not so mindless after all.
For centuries, these free-thinking sentient machines have been held under the powerful control of series of magical geasa, forced to serve as slaves. When the spell that has shackled them is suddenly broken, the result is a swift and chaotic rebellion. The Liberation is its final act, exploring the actions of an oppressed group which has finally experienced its first taste of freedom. While their bodies might be made of metal and glass, the Clakkers have minds that function like our own and a culture that includes language and religion. For all intents and purposes, they are human. And just like humans, their response to their newfound independence is varied and unpredictable, as this novel shows.
Every sci-fi fan knows that robot uprising stories are nothing new. But to me, the genius behind The Alchemy Wars is in the way Ian Tregillis has adapted the theme, framing it within a uniquely different narrative and setting. Here, there are no clear lines drawn between the A.I. and humans. The robots are us. They have the same potential for compassion and evil. They are as just likely to be our allies as our enemies. The human characters themselves are morally grey as well, in that I can’t say conclusively whether anyone in this series is depicted as a true hero or villain. Incidentally, that’s the nature of many of Tregillis’ stories.
Over the course of this trilogy the books have switched their focus between different characters, but in my review of The Rising I wrote that I was starting to look at The Alchemy Wars as being Jax’s series, and The Liberation has not really changed that opinion. Jax, a mechanical servitor who was one of the first to be freed from his geasa, has now rechristened himself Daniel after the events of the previous book. Each installment has seen a major turning point for his character, his role having evolved from wanted fugitive to reluctant messiah, and you will see his moment of truth in this final novel.
Another important figure is Berenice, the disgraced former spymaster for the French. Despite all the tragedies that have befallen her, she has not backed down, fighting her way back to the Americas where Marseilles-in-the-West houses the exiled royal court of France. While her goals align with the Clakkers’ fight for freedom, if the last two books have taught me anything, it is that Berenice is an ambitious woman who values her own agenda above all others—though to be fair, her character has also come a long way since The Mechanical. Her flaws notwithstanding, Berenice remains one of my favorite characters, and I have to wonder if that is because she reminds me so much of Chrisjen Avasarala from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse. Both women are strong-willed, foul-mouthed, and major forces to be reckoned with.
Missing from action though, is Hugo Longchamp. It was a little disappointing, since he was one of the standouts from The Rising. Still, I understood the reason for his diminished role and the need to bring in other perspectives in order to paint the full picture for this epic conclusion. Indeed, this book introduces an unexpected though no less fascinating new point-of-view, that of Anastasia Bell, a high-ranking member of the Clockmakers Guild of Amsterdam. For the first time we are getting an up-close-and-personal look at what is happening behind the scenes with the Dutch, and boy it is not pretty. When the story opens, Anastasia has just finished recovering from her grievous injuries sustained from the last book, only to be hit full-on with the Clakker rebellion.
The Liberation is about free will, and the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. It is about how a person (or machine) wields that power, whether you choose vengeance and violence or decide to walk the path of peace. It is about recognizing the humanity in others, and the consequences of ignorance and hubris. It’s a satisfying, stunning end to one of the most compelling and cleverly written stories I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for a series that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking, I highly recommend The Alchemy Wars.