Lake's novels cover all kinds of territory; the main books of his I've read are steampunk - Mainspring and it's sequel - and they're very different from this urban-set New Weird fantasy, very much archetypical of the genre.  Indeed, Trial of Flowers covers many of the tropes of the genres - the weird and numinous, the political, the revolutionary, and the popular; Lake's "heroes" (very much with quotation marks) are very akin to those of, for instance, Perdido Street Station - flawed, imperfect, and only acting from base motives.

Our three main characters - Jason, Imago and Bijaz the Dwarf - are indeed flawed, as are all our other characters; the trajectory of the story involves prophecy, and the characters being driven by ambitions conflicting, loyalties torn, personal relationships and hatreds coming into play.  The characters are all unlikeable and, indeed, almost evil; they are also, however, sympathetic - or rather, Lake forces the reader to be sympathetic to them thanks to the traumas he puts them through, and the way he writes them.  The lesser characters are forceful, acting mainly as revelators to our main characters, with some notable exceptions - revelatory and spoilery ones.

The plot's also rather strange, interlocking various different elements - the political, the religious, the weird, the economic and the social; indeed, it's Marxist influenced, very Miéville-charged, and very much on the complex side.  However, to reveal much about it would reveal spoilers; there's foreign forces, evil Old Gods - those terms precisely, indeed; and Lovecraftian elements.  It's a dark and terrifying place, very much in line with the New Weird.  It's a beautiful plot, really brilliant.

Finally, the setting.  Lake's City Imperishable is a beautiful, gothic, crumbling and ugly creation, with horrific tales and sacrifices, dark gods, and grim religions in the mix.  Indeed, the City is awful and compelling all at once, a force and character all of its own, political and incredible; it's got elements of New Crobuzon, the crumbling and corruption of the urban area, and it's mixed community, underbelly exposed amongst all other elements.

In the end, this is a brilliant example of the New Weird; Lake's Trial of Flowers is a beautiful and horrific, ugly and wonderful novel. I'm in.
Jay Lake's Mainspring is one of the best steampunk books I've read; not without flaws, but still incredibly good.  So, when I got the sequel, I was expecting more of the same - creative and intelligent writing, different cultures, and an interesting spin on history and religion.  Escapement fulfils those and more - though, again, not without some flaws.

The strongest, and at the same time weakest, aspect of this novel is the characters.  The three main characters, whose adventures we follow, are Childress and Al-Wazir, both of whom we met in Mainspring, and Paolina, a character new to this novel.  The first two, I have to say, I really enjoyed; Childress, a librarian, is a brilliant character and a strong woman - that is, she is a female character with a definite degree of written personal strength; she is also not without flaws, and over the course of the novel she grows and (in a way) matures.  Perhaps also, she has the benefit of a sly humour - Lake's dropped some nice ideas about how to handle difficulties into her head!  Al-Wazir is also fascinating, a large-hearted and kind man without being a fool; defiantly violent and even crude, he is actually a very sentimental and caring individual.  Equally, the lesser characters, such as Leung and Boaz, arouse our sympathies and make connections with the reader.  Unfortunately, Paolina doesn't - which takes a lot of power from the book's end; rather like Hethor in Mainspring, she is a superwoman, and she is not a character with a great deal of sympathy.  She doesn't evoke the reader's, because her manner is short, and she doesn't care for others (except in large numbers; she is the inverse of the one/one million Stalin statistic...).

The plot is good - the three interweaving and interwining layers and strands of it tie themselves together nicely, towards the end, and whilst we can see that they will, we can't see how; the various layers-within-layers and plots-within-plots are also incredibly well put together by Lake, and made believable however unexpected they are.  Lake's good at creating a complex plot from simple elements, and that is exactly what he does here; the plot has some unexpected twists whilst not feeling the need to always do the unexpected, which is excellent.  Lake does, it must be said, use the deus ex machina trick on a couple of occasions - though not without cost; however, the cost is variable and - on more than one occasion - appears to have been forgotten.  This does, to my mind, rather reduce the plot's punchiness and complexity, although doesn't make it uncreative.

Finally, the setting. I had reservations about the cultures in Mainspring, but Lake's addressed those in Escapement; whereas Mainspring's cultures were terribly stereotypical and undeveloped, we get far more in Escapement - the Chinese and the Praia Nova are both different and well-developed, well portrayed cultures with a deal of research behind them.  Whilst they're not flawless - either in terms of themselves, or in terms of etic views (Lake too often seems to be an outsider looking in; unfortunately, so does Paolina, which someone growing up within a culture cannot be) - their flaws are limited, and the cultures are overwhelmingly individual and different.

So, all in all, a large thumbs up and recommendation; whereas many sequels fail to build on the success of their predecessor, Escapement surpasses Mainspring and is an incredibly good book.  All credit to Jay Lake.
Lake clearly knows how to spin a good tale; in Mainspring, he combines an original and beautiful piece of fiction with a complex and interesting piece of philosophy.

The setting is incredibly original, but the characters speak more strongly to the reader than the world; Hethor is, after all, something of a unique character.  He matures over the course of the book, and that maturation is treated carefully and sympathetically by Lake, rather than in a clichéd or caricatured manner - for instance, whilst some of his views are rigidly inflexible throughout, many more do seem to be able to shift and change and evolve as his experiences demand.  Hethor therefore starts as a sympathetic character and becomes more and more a human one, who is flawed and imperfect even as he is the hero of the novel - when he feels pain, pleasure, sadness, joy, Lake shows it clearly although without making it overemphasising it. Hethor's attachments also, because of the power of their portrayal, also become those of the reader and our sympathies, due to Lake's style and the focus of the novel, tend to follow where Hethor's lead.

The strength of Hethor's character doesn't allow another massively strong character, but it also doesn't overshadow the other characters or prevent Lake including fantastic individuals in the novel.  Other people are drawn well and vividly by Lake, without being too light or heavy with the pen, but also without making them simply secondary to Hethor or extensions of his will/extensions of the plot.  One of the most impressive aspects of these characters, and of the novel, is Lake's portrayal of a different culture (that is, non-Western culture and a culture from which his main character does not originate); this culture is entirely fictional, not rooted in the ideas ours centres on, and with a very different worldview.  The original introduction of this culture is... problematic and dubious, with Hethor something of the Great White God of such diverse works as Pocahontas and Avatar (Dancing with Smurfs, anyone?); but Lake generally avoids that easy pitfall (although not entirely), and makes the culture something significant and independent within the novel.

The setting, as I said earlier, is both original and unique; Lake makes concrete William Paley's notion of the clockwork universe, presenting it literally - the world rotates by clockwork, the solar system is interlocking clockwork, and so on, created by God as a set of ingenious and perfect mechanisms. His history - an America ruled by Britain, a conflict with China - is based on the world and a rewriting of history, but also largely on a rewriting of geography - along the equator a giant cog runs, splitting the Northern and Southern hemispheres to make them nigh-totally inaccessible to each other; Lake uses that division, rather than just letting it sit there mute.

The plot, despite this being the first in a series, is well-contained; whilst it is somewhat clichéd, with Hethor chosen by God to restore Earth to balance and evil anarchists fighting to try and prevent him going on his journey to do so, and whilst the moral is... rather sickly-sweet, Lake does manage to make it work with a certain flare and style that avoids the staleness that tends to cling to these kind of plots.

In the end, despite the simple plot, this is a wonderfully well-written book worth a read, and incredibly enjoyable.

(Originally read 23/02/2010, reviewed on paper, now typed up)


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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