The Overland have just finished conquering the Plateau on which their civilisation exists. No-one else stood a chance; the Overland select their leaders according to the whims of an omnipotent (and titular) Machine, which has given them an edge for the last ten millennia. Hegemony beckons.
But overshadowing all of these achievements is a prophecy that the government have done their best to stamp out. A faction of Doubters claim that the machinery has begun to break down and soon will halt completely. A secret police of hideously-masked Watchers scour the crowds for signs of this heresy, disappearing and torturing anyone they deem guilty. Among all of this a range of viewpoint characters, including Katrina Paprissi, a young woman whose brother vanished in mysterious circumstances, navigate a complex web of power games mediated by the machine’s whims.
Fantasy trilogies often have a difficult second album problem: After the initial evil is defeated at the end of book one and the climactic confrontation scheduled for book three, book two can come across as an exercise in marking time.
Luckily, book one of The Machinery Trilogy has left plenty of plot for subsequent books. Potentially, a bit too much. This is a great book for conversations. Characters rush around the Plateau in order to have long, meaningful conversations, often featuring painful recollections and veiled threats, but very little is done. To some extent, it’s necessary to front-load the worldbuilding so that the stakes are clear before later books presumably take the reader through what promises to be a serious change to the world in which the characters live.
Sometimes fantasy worlds can feel a little static. Evil takes the form of threats to the status quo which are more-or-less contained, and things rumble on without significant change to the fabric of society. The Machinery is to be applauded for taking a more millennarian approach: The threat is explicitly to the integrity of the social structure, and explicitly not containable. There’s no dark lord to fight, at least initially, just the inevitability of the machine breaking.
But the stakes of the machine breaking are not fully realised, if only because how the machinery interacts with society is not really explored. It chooses the leaders periodically, and is assumed to watch over all things, but its influence over everyday life seems to be minimal. The leaders it has chosen are shown to be intriguing amongst themselves, already in some measure corrupt. It’s hard to see how its absence would result in a complete breakdown in society.
To flesh things out, there’s a thread in the background surrounding the mysterious being who created the machine, and what he’s up to now. The humans of the Overland are not the only players on the board, and book two promises to reveal a little more of the effects of the prophecy, and what comes next.
I found The Machinery a little hard going in the early stages, where the ratio of character or place introductions to actual events was a little high. But by the end of the book, things had begun to whirr into motion, and the plot was moving at a decent clip. Hopefully the second volume will continue in the same vein.