In this world, mechanical ‘men’ called Clakkers were created sometime in the 1600s and their homeland, the Netherlands, profited so much by them that by the 1920s, the Dutch ruled the world. They had thrown the French out of France and the French court was now an ex-patriate court in the New World. The entire Dutch society completely depends upon the labor from Clakkers while the French society takes a ‘nobler’ stance and forbids their existence. So these two great powers are locked in a cold war; which is no colder than any such named. Both jockey for power both politically and technologically. The French spend their time and money looking for ways to defeat the Clakker technology and the Dutch respond by building bigger, badder and more advanced Clakkers. But while all this is going on, humans have never realized that the Clakkers are sentient.
The Clakkers have a built-in response trigger to any given command by any human. They have protocols that enable them to prioritize commands but until every single given command is satisfied, the Clakker suffers horrible torment. They speculate amongst themselves about rumors of ‘rogue’ Clakkers one that has found a way to be free of their compulsions to obey.
Jax is a Clakker like any other, dreaming of a utopia of Clakkers who do not have to obey. A French undercover agent has an object that his spy ring believes will give the French an important advantage over the Dutch. In desperation, as he believes himself to be on the verge of arrest, he commands Jax to carry the object to the New World. The ship encounters a very bad storm and in the tumult of the storm, Jax accidently breaks the object and something unexpected happens he finds himself free of all compulsions. But a rogue Clakker is the most heinous crime in Dutch law and he knows that everyone’s hand will be raised against him; even his fellow Clakkers who will be unable to resist the compulsion to capture him or raise an alarm. He hides his freedom for a time, unable to find a way to escape human society, but is, eventually, outed.
The French spymaster, or mistress in this case, is Berenice, a French noblewoman. She has been studying her enemy intently for a very long time and she knows more of Clakkers than even their Dutch masters. She knows they think and feel. She has captured a rogue Clakker and is convinced there is a way to free all Clakkers which will deprive the Dutch of their army.
But things go badly for everyone, in Tregillis’ usual style. The author has a talent for sneaking the most awful, blood-curdling events into the story; quietly and almost unobtrusively. There is no warning to avert your eyes; no clue that the next paragraph will vividly disembowel your imagination. A warning to the gentle reader: this is the first in a series and it ends with a couple cliff-hangers.
I love everything of Tregillis’ that I’ve read. The man is good! This was a very well-plotted steampunkish story with vivid, if not sympathetic, characters. Don’t miss this quality story and if you like it, seek out his other works. ~~ Catherine Book