Well, so I’m relatively sure that Chick Fil A won’t be opening a restaurant in Eisenstadt.
Eisenstadt’s birds, including the poultry, talk. Consequently, feathered things are off the menu.
Professor Oladel Adewole is in a kind of exile in the city of Eisenstadt. At the story’s beginning, he is getting accustomed to the notion of blabbing sparrows as well as a dearth of coffee. (The lack of coffee, unlike the conversational birds, isn’t really explained. Problems with shipping, I guess.) He’s a professor of linguistics and his move from his native Jero to Eisenstadt is in the guise of career opportunity.
His new boss, however, hates him, and he’s only paid enough to live near the Drift, the shadow of Inselmond, the island that floats above Eisenstadt. It’s sort of like the floating islands of Avatar’s Pandora, except no one has ever visited or knows who or what lives there. (It turns out that regular people do live there, which begs the question: “Really? You mean no teenage Inselmonders ever spent a drunken night flinging stuff off the edge of the island?”)
This all changes when a substance know as black mercury is discovered. It’s like gasoline, only better. It doesn’t need refining and is a potent fuel. Eisenstadt, Jero and the nations of The Machine God utilize 1900s technology, with steam being the primary fuel. Now, with this zippier fuel source, they can finally visit the mysterious island of Iselmond.
Oladel, along with his roommate, Karl Deviatka (an engineer and a nobleman whose family has fallen on hard times) are part of the uh, “away team" who will make first contact. Arriving there, they find a small population of people, most of whom (except the richies, of course) lead a hardscrabble life, farming the limited arable land and eating giant beetles, the only meat on the menu. In Iselmond, or Risenton, as it’s called by the locals, the birds also talk. (Although, you kind of wonder, in a world where the only "meats" on the table is bug, if people might get over the aversion to eating talking fowl. "Shut up and be fried chicken!")
Oladel soon acquaints himself with Risenton’s scholars and librarians and begins researching the island’s history, digging into the calamity that threw the island into the sky a thousand or so years ago. His efforts are hampered by a Risenton’s cultural secrecy, driven by fear of the use of metal with magic. The secret appears to lie within an ancient manuscript that details the making of a metal man that is fused with the soul of a “god.”
“No harm ever came from reading a book,” says Evy in the movie The Mummy, about a minute before she reads a book, unleashing a vengeful mummy on the world. Similarly, what Oladel finds within the pages of a book leads to the dire, dire happenings.
The Machine God is an installment in a series of books written in a shared world. It's relatively short (198 pages), but nonetheless, my attention span wandered and it took a while for me to finish reading it. The writing is quite good, with vivid but not overcooked description. There aren't many characters and they are distinctive, though maybe not wildly compelling. The world building is sufficient and original.
My interest flagged after Oladel and Karl got to Iselmond/Risenton. Maybe it's the politics and maneuvering necessary when meeting a new people that got dull. Or some of Oladel's activities before he finds the tome of doom. Once he gets going translating the book, however, things do pick up. And his discoveries go far in explaining much about the island and its culture. I suspect the problem lies with the protagonist who, as a scholar, isn't exactly the dynamic action hero type. I'm conflicted, because I like the idea of a nerd hero, but I guess he/she still needs to be a little more...uh, active. Or given more to do.
But, the writing and the unique setting makes The Machine God a nice diversion.