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Literature / The Alchemy War
aka: The Mechanical

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My name is Jax.

That is the name granted to me by my human masters.

I am a clakker: a mechanical man, powered by alchemy. Armies of my kind have conquered the world - and made the Brasswork Throne the sole superpower.

I am a faithful servant. I am the ultimate fighting machine. I am endowed with great strength and boundless stamina.

But I am beholden to the wishes of my human masters.

I am a slave. But I shall be free.

The Alchemy War is the latest series by Ian Tregillis. The first volume, titled The Mechanical, was released in the Spring of 2015 and revolves around an alternate history where robots were developed in the late 17th century. The machines, needing neither rest nor any apparent source of power, labor for their human masters while enduring constant stress and pain due to their magically compelled obedience. Other titles in the trilogy are The Rising and finally The Liberation.


'The Mechanical' contains examples of:

  • Alchemy Is Magic: The horologists of the Clockmakers Guild guard their alchemical and technological secrets jealously. It is clear whatever they're using to animate their mechanical slaves is more than mere science, and is referred to as dark magic by Father Visser.
  • All-Loving Hero: Jax (or Daniel as he later calls himself) values all life and is a pacifist despite all that he's endured.
  • All Webbed Up: One of the few ways that French chemists were able to stop the Clakkers. The French had developed super-strong epoxy guns that harden almost instantly. They would hose down Clakkers in a webbing of this stuff and even their strength can't break out of it (with the exception of the Stemwinders).
  • Amulet of Concentrated Awesome: Spinoza's Lens is an artifact of great power, it can be used to paralyze Clakkers and free them of the Geasa
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  • An Arm and a Leg: It happens to Tuinier Bell, a piece of Spinoza's Lens becomes embedded in her hand. To deal with her, a rogue soldier Clakker cuts off her arm.
  • And I Must Scream: Tuinier Bell's great accomplishment: reducing a human to the same state of helpless obedience as Jax and his fellows.
  • Apologetic Attacker: When Clakkers are forced to turn on each other.
  • Arc Words: Clockmakers lie.
  • Atop a Mountain of Corpses: When the rogue Clakkers massacre the Dutch, Queen Mab makes her debut to them by standing on a hill of the corpses. In fact, the Clakkers kill so many of them that they are able to use the corpses to wall the Dutch inside their city.
  • Book Burning: In the first chapter of the book, captive papist spies are shown to have their faces blackened with the soot from burned Catholic bibles in a mockery of the Ash Wednesday tradition.
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: Averted. No one uses blunderbuss and musket anymore, the Dutch have their Clakkers fight for them while the French use their glue guns and diamond chisels to damage Clakker glyphs. When the French discovered that Queen Mab would turn the captive Dutch into superhumanly strong puppets, there were plans to equip French forces with these antiquated firearms. But nothing came of this, as Mab was defeated before it got to that point.
  • Broken Pedestal: Jax hears tales of a beautiful Clakker named Queen Mab, who is said to have the ability to free other Clakkers from their geasa, and he wants to see her. Upon actually meeting her, he's horrified. She's actually a patchwork of various Clakker parts and violently insane. It's true that she can remove the geasa, but what she actually prefers doing is putting a geasa of her own on other Clakkers to control them
  • Church Police: Stemwinders—horrific bladed centaur robots—are the muscle of the Dutch Empire, enforcing their disdain for Catholicism with extreme prejudice.
  • Clock Punk: All technology from the Grand Forge seems to be a 50-50 split between this and Magitek
  • Cool Ship: The massive, sentient cruise ship—referred to by the Clakkers as a Titan—as well as the CoolAirships throughout the book.
  • Cranial Processing Unit: The glyph on a servitor's forehead appears crucial to their functioning. Damage to this 'keyhole' will either shut down the Clakker permanently, or, rarely, free them from the bonds of compulsive obedience.
  • Crapsack World: When you're a semi-immortal intelligence with no free will, this is your world. The only freedom Clakkers have is the ability to share stories amongst each other in their secret language.
  • The Dreaded: Stemwinders are centauroid juggernauts and are feared by the French for their killing power, and by regular Clakkers who are executed by the Stemwinders.
  • The Empire: The Dutch Empire.
  • The Evils of Free Will:
  • Evil Luddite: The Dutch are in something of a technological stasis, with the only real development happening through the horologists. However the horologists are so jealous of their secrets and so dismissive of the needs of other aspects of society, especially commerce, that they have actually purposely stymied innovation by hording their secrets and actively preventing new inventions outside of the guild.
  • Eye Scream: When Berenice's research goes a bit awry, she ends up spending a chapter with a hunk of shrapnel sticking out of her eye. For a while she is too busy to worry about removing it, and notes how eerie it feels to have it bob when she runs.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: The Catholics and Protestants have different ideas about free will and the personhood of machines.
  • Golem: Essentially what the magically-powered Clakkers are. They are even animated by a point on their forehead as a nod to the Jewish Golem myth.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: Stemwinder is a rather weak-sounding title for these mighty executioners, but they get that name because they are the only Clakkers built with enough strength to wind up the magical furnaces used to melt down rogue Clakkers.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Berenice purposely goads Queen Mab to stab her, so that a team of Stemwinders can save Daniel (aka Jax) and take down Mab.
  • Historical Domain Character: Christiaan Huygens, who developed the alchemy and clockwork mechanisms that power the Clakkers and founded the Clockmakers' Guild (this has a slight basis in Real Life - Huygens invented the pendulum clock).
  • I Know Your True Name: The long, convoluted names of the Clakkers and other creations appear to be a part of their magical compulsion. This is supported by the fact that Father Luuk Visser's full, true name is written on the mysterious paper that activates the brain implant, revoking his free will.
  • Illegal Religion: In Dutch-controlled territories, Catholics are captured and tormented until they convert, or their captors get bored with them. Prisoners are typically fed only desecrated communion wafers and wine.
  • Job-Stealing Robot: The wealthy and powerful love having super-strong, immortal slaves so they don't have to pay filthy poor people to carry their luggage or clean their house.
  • The Juggernaut: Stemwinders are almost unstoppable, the new Titan ships of the Clockwork Empire are the true juggernauts and nothing at sea can withstand their charge.
  • Magitek: The clockwork creations appear to run on this, needing no fuel or external power to run for centuries at a time.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Averted, there were plans to destroy the last of the Grand Forges, which would end the motive force of the Clakkers as well as the alchemy of the horologists. But the heroes were able to succeed without resorting to that.
  • Mêlée à Trois: The inital war is between the Dutch and the French and then a third combatant enters the fray, the forces of Queen Mab.
  • Mix-and-Match Critter: Queen Mab is a Clakker that rebuilt herself with parts of other Clakkers. She has the head of a Servitor, the upper body of a Soldier (including its arm blade) and two legs that used to belong to a Stemwinder. The bits from the combat-oriented Clakkers make her a powerhouse in a battle, though she's no match for a Stemwinder.
  • Multi-Armed and Dangerous: The Stemwinders have four arms and are the most devastating thing on land.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Lilith is in the process of trepanning Berenice, she talks to her in Latin. This horrifies Berenice, she realizes that this once-harmless rogue Clakker was truly remarkable to have spent her centuries learning Latin and other languages, in addition to various sciences. It was Berenice's torture of Lilith that drove her mad, and that Berenice was little better than the horologists.
  • The Netherlands: The Empire of the setting, power mad and
  • Noisy Robots: The mechanical creations of the Grand Forge can't help but emit a constant, quiet ticking even when running at perfect efficiency. The noise increases greatly when they are wracked with the pain of an unfulfilled geas, their springs tensing and their cogs grinding.
  • Playing with Syringes: Tuinier Bell.
  • Public Execution: The book is kicked off by the public execution of four Catholics, and one Rogue Clakker.
  • Praetorian Guard: The Queen's Guard are a specially built number of soldier clakkers. Superficially similar to the regular kind, except larger and faceless, the Queen's Guard are far more powerful and rival the Stemwinders in might.
  • Puny Earthlings: In this series, barring a few examples, humans are not special and the story really goes out of its way to point out how incredible the Clakkers are in comparison.
  • Robot Master: Christiaan Huygens seems to be the original creator of the servitor robots,
  • Sapient Ship: Most if not all airships have a mind of their own, enslaved by the Horologists.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: Berenice, both aloud and in internal monologues, when she's angry, irritated, scared or saying anything about the Dutch, and with particular creativity when talking or thinking about Montmorency after he betrays New France.
  • Steampunk: The setting shifts between early 20th century Europe and their territories in the New World, although Berenice questions the practicality of the French steam powered weapons.
  • Strapped to an Operating Table:
  • Swiss Army Weapon: The Stemwinders can change their hands into hammers and combat blades, all within seconds.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: The Geasa that the mechanical creatures endure make them compliant to dozens of restrictions. Notably, they are permitted to kill a human if it protects their creator's trade secrets.
  • Unusual Euphemism: In a tenuous metaphor, the Clockmakers' secret police are called the Verderers, an archaic (English) term for a kind of forest warden, and their chief is called the Tuinier, Dutch for "Gardener" - one who eradicates weeds.
  • Unwilling Roboticisation: Father Visser is a victim of this, with a glass implant surgically installed in his brain. The effect is dramatic, causing him to immediately and completely obey all commands Bell gives to him, just like a Clakker.

Alternative Title(s): The Mechanical