Book Review: “Sir MacHinery,” by Tom McGowan

by Robinson L

Robinson L reviews an obscure fantasy novel
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As evil gathers in the underground world, good witch Maggie MacMurdoch sends out three stout brownies to find a powerful and virtuous knight who can save the world from the impending demon attack. Their quest brings them to a remote Scottish castle where American physicist Simon Smith is at work on his latest invention: a robot.

Upon discovering the robot laying amongst a bunch of crates marked MACHINERY, the brownies dub it “Sir MacHinery,” and immediately recruit it for their quest. (True confession: In my first reading I completely missed the joke until the text spelled it out for me.) Soon it becomes necessary to enlist more people, including Simon Smith, a police officer, a retired soldier, and the legendary wizard Merlin.

Sir MacHinery is a story packed with incident, including a duel with a sea monster, a battle between ghost armies, a siege by demons in which our heroes must employ both science and magic, and an exciting dungeon-crawl. One might well ask how McGowan manages to fit all this and a cast list to rival a Robert Jordan novel into a mere 155 pages.

I don't have a definitive answer to that question, but I suspect one of the ways he pulls it off is by excising all things filler from the text. Each dramatic incident takes exactly as much time as it needs to fulfill its role in furthering the plot, and no more.

Another way is that McGowan takes little pains to flesh out the characters. Simon and Merlin get the most development, and even they are pretty two-dimensional.

The characters are by no means the driving force of the story, either. It is entirely plot-driven, to the point where the characters go along with the needs of the plot even when they have no motivation to do so. Simon Smith in particular, during the first half of the book when he doesn't believe all this superstitious “magic” nonsense, still continually accedes to the suggestions of the people around him with little or no protest, such as agreeing to visit Maggie even though he has no reason to believe she would be of any help locating his missing robot.

Another technique McGowan frequently utilizes to keep his word count down is the info-dump. This is one place where the short page count actually hurts the novel, as a larger number of pages could have allowed McGowan to string out the info-dumps a bit more and they wouldn't have felt so ubiquitous. Thankfully, most of them are short, but in terms of narrative flow they're pretty clunky, and the demons' backstory for one takes up an entire chapter.

McGowan's prose is not exactly stellar, and occasionally the reader stumbles across a passage like this one:

Merlin and the robot had been gone but a few minutes when a single patch of gray fog began moving across the plain toward the circle. Oddly, it was moving against the faint breeze that blew.

… which reads like one of those unfinished sentences where you expect the speaker's voice to come down to punctuate the end of a thought, or at least to trail off, only they don't.

Okay, so the book has its share of flaws, and some of them bring the quality down. How much do they effect enjoyment? Not much. Why? Because it's only 155 pages long. Characters' easy readiness to take whatever course of action best suits the story strains plausibility, but it has the advantage of moving the plot along at a steady clip and keeping up the action, rather than diverting the narrative along irrelevant detours. This and the other faults mentioned above would doubtless prove aggravating in a mammoth brick of the type favored by modern epic fantasy writers, but in a story of 155 pages I can readily forgive it.

Sir MacHinery isn't a spectacular story, and it doesn't need to be. It's engaging, highly imaginative, and with such an heroically short page-count, the flaws just aren't around long enough to do worse than mildly irritate.

There is some blatant cultural demonization surrounding the tribal peoples whom Merlin identifies as the builders of Stonehenge. He describes them as “a savage and primitive people” and Stonehenge itself “a bloody and horrible place of sacrifice for them.” The evil ghosts of these horrible savages present one of the many obstacles our heroes must overcome.

As far as I know, McGowan isn't slurring any known ethnic group specifically, but his discourse seems rooted in some pretty nasty assumptions about tribal peoples in general. This wasn't a deal-breaker for me, but I can understand if it is for someone else.

One last strength of the book is McGowan's narration style, which hearkens back to pre-Tolkien eras when writers were more relaxed and easygoing in their narration. Unless they're writing comedy or in first-person, modern fantasy authors all deliver their narration in the manner of a formal lecture by a university professor. Even Terry Pratchett, the late grandmaster of comic fantasy, used this basic style, although in his case the university professor had one fantastic sense of humor.

There's nothing wrong with the formal lecture style. It aids willing suspension of disbelief by presenting events of the story almost as an historical account, with the narrator's own voice practically disappearing. But it's good to remember that the lecture style is not the only possible one, and sometimes another type of narration may be preferable, if only to add variety. Sir MacHinery, for instance, has a more relaxed, conversational tone, like someone telling a story in front of a bonfire.

All-in-all, Sir MacHinery is a more-than-satisfying read, and even if you dislike it, you can take comfort in the knowledge that it'll soon be over. It's probably out of print by now, and even the libraries might not have it, so finding a copy may be a bit difficult, but if you get a chance to read it (and you aren't completely put off by the cultural demonization), I'd encourage you to give it a try.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 05:06 on 2015-06-01
See, I thought the title of this review was a deliberate pun on your part, and lo, that was in fact the true title of the book. It seems like the kind of quick pleasant read I got out of The Sorcerer's Ship, another obscure book from the Age When Fantasy Was Allowed To Be Short.

I assume you found this in a used bookstore?
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2015-06-01
Actually, no; it was in my mother's collection - I don't know where she got it, though there's a strong possibility she got it from her mother.
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