Looking at the cover of Genevieve Valentine’s debut novel, Mechanique, you could be forgiven for assuming that it is a steampunk novel. It certainly does contain weird science, with lots of shiny cogs and gears, but there the resemblance ends. There’s no cod Victorian society, no bustles and corsets, and no airships. Indeed, Mechanique is set is a post-apocalyptic world, or at least a world struggling to recover from the devastating effects of a major war, and the mechanical marvels run more on magic than on steam.
With central government having broken down, each city is controlled by local strong men trying to pretend that they are legitimate politicians, despite the fact that their “armies” and “police” are often just gangs of thugs. Most of the population keep their heads down and do as they are told, but outside of the cities a certain amount of freedom can still be had, as long as you keep moving. One way to get that freedom is to run away and join the circus.
Of course that’s not easy. The Circus Tresaulti is fussy. To join the ranks of its performers you need to be specially talented. There are, of course, openings for crewmen who drive the trucks and do the grunt work of assembling and disassembling the circus at each stop. The performers, however, are a breed apart. They can do things that no ordinary human can. Perhaps they are not really human.
Well, let’s face it, Panadrome obviously isn’t. He’s a one-man orchestral machine. There’s a human head mounted on the top that appears to move like it was alive, but that’s not real is it? Perhaps it is better not to ask.
Some of the others look more human — the jugglers, the aerialists — but their strength and agility are unnatural. The acrobat, Bird, has a mechanical eye. Ayar, the strongman, has a body full of gears and pistons, and a steel spine. His assistant, Jonah, has clockwork lungs. Do the audience know this? Do they assume it is all fake? Is that safer than believing their eyes?
We see the circus mainly through the eyes of Little George. He has been adopted by Boss, the lady ringmaster, and his main job is putting up posters in town when the circus arrives. Because he is young, George has a lot to learn about the circus. Boss would like to protect him as long as she can. She would like to protect all of them. She knows that she can’t do so for ever. Sometimes she will fail, like she did with Alec.
Alec was the Winged Man. He could really fly, until the day that he chose to fall instead. Now his wings lie unused in Boss’s workroom. Bird and her partner, Stenos, both want them. Who wouldn’t want to be able to fly? Alec, presumably.
Why? Because there is a price to everything. Boss knows that. Other people have to learn it. In the capital city there is a man who thinks he is The Government. He doesn’t have much power beyond his city, but he is smart and ruthless. Slowly but surely, his influence is growing. Like any ambitious general, he is always on the lookout for new weapons, something that will give him an edge. And because he is The Government, he thinks he can just take what he wants. Boss knows better.
So no, Mechanique is not what most people would call steampunk. It will, as you may have guessed from the title of this review, remind many of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. The story of Fevvers, however, is one of freedom and identity. Mechanique is all about power, about what you do with it, and about the price you pay for it.
As with Carter, Valentine is not afraid of stretching language. Some readers will bounce off her style. Others will struggle to follow the time shifts as she switches back and fore between the main plot and historical sections about each of the major characters. But if you are unafraid of a mildly challenging book then Mechanique will reward you, horrify you, and stay with you for a long time to come.
Buy the e-book from Wizard’s Tower Books.