THE RISING: The Alchemical Wars Book Two by Ian Tregellis (cover by Wendy Chan, all rights to current holder) is set in a 1900s world where Holland has mastered the alchemical art of creating “Clakkers,” self-aware metal automatons. Clakker armies have let the Dutch conquer most of the known world and now New France, the last holdout, is preparing for an imminent Clakker attack. The story follows three protagonists: Jax, a Clakker who broke free of the Dutch geases in the first book; Berenice, a French spy trying to penetrate the secrets of the alchemists; and Longchamps, a dour, battle-hardened veteran leading the defense of New Marseille.
WHAT I LEARNED:
Changing genres adds new interest. The premise of enslaved robots/androids/computers wanting freedom is hardly new. However, putting the robots in a fantasy setting where they’re powered by alchemy makes it look fresher than it really is. And that’s not a veiled insult — making an old idea look new is a good thing.
The better the good parts, the worse the bad parts can be. I’ve referenced the idea a great movie has at least three good scenes and no bad ones before. By this standard, I don’t count The Rising as a great book because the Longchamp plot didn’t work for me at all. He’s a generic type—grizzled, hard-bitten cussing out the rookies, ready to do whatever it takes—and unlike the rest of the novel, those scenes felt phoned in (a Longchamp scene opens the book. I almost put it back on the shelf). But despite Longchamp, the book is good. Berenice and Jax are interesting and both their plotlines are full of energy and suspense. They compensate enough for the book’s weaknesses that I liked it despite the draggy bits. That’s to Tregellis’ credit — I’ve read other books with dead spots that didn’t have enough good stuff to compensate. I don’t say much nice about those novels.
Little changes mean a lot. It seems to me (though I haven’t made a statistical survey) that in most books it’s the English or the Americans who stand against whatever tide is overwhelming the world. Making the protagonists French gave it a slightly fresher feel.
Lack of world-building detail matters a lot too. Probably the biggest weakness in the book besides Longchamp was that Tregellis’ setting is rather bland. He describes the alchemical details and symbols of the Clakkers in loving detail, the operations of the alchemical guild are well thought out but the cultures? Like I said, making the protagonists French was a nice change, but there’s nothing to distinguish them from any beleagured garrison anywhere. Nor is there anything distinctive about the Dutch besides their alchemy and being the evil imperialists. They’re generic. And I’ve no idea how everyday life differs from ours, other than that technology stopped at about the 1800s. It’s also a very white book, though I might have missed a black supporting character here or there.
Backstory can be handled easily. I had absolutely no problem following this without having read book one. Partly that’s because the set-up is simple: bad nation sends robot army to destroy good nation. Still, Tregellis does a good job parceling out information I needed to know when I needed to know it. Berenice fills in a lot while brooding in her cell in her first scene, for instance; it’s a tense enough situtation it didn’t slow things down or feel too info-dumpy.
The acid test for success is whether I’d read more. Unlike some authors I’ve read recently I wouldn’t pass up another Tregellis novel, but I definitely wouldn’t make an effort to find one or to prioritize reading him. I think the problem isn’t Longchamp so much as the bland setting: combined with the standard plot elements of robots struggling to be free, it just doesn’t hook me or make me crave more. I don’t consider the book a waste of time — I really did enjoy it — but it’s not a must-have either.