Scar Night by Alan Campbell; Book One of the Deepgate Codex.
Published by TOR UK, July 2006.
Review by Hobbit.
Ah, dark Fantasy. As both myself, and others, have mentioned around here, whatever you feel it is, there’s a lot of it about. This is a book from a new writer in the UK being heralded by others as a major new work.
Simply put, it is a story of angels and chains, of death and rebirth.
It mainly concerns itself with Dill, the last in a hereditary long line of angels, who lives in the city of Deepgate. The city is a large megalopolis, created atop a seemingly bottomless abyss (known as Deep) and held together precariously over the chasm by chains. At the bottom of the abyss allegedly lies the god Ulcis, to whom all dead bodies are given. The religion of the people of Deepgate is one where a body’s blood is sacrosanct, containing the soul of the deceased. By returning the body to Ulcis, the soul is freed.
At the time the story starts, the people of Deepgate are at war with the Heshette, post-apocalyptic barbarian adversaries who inhabit Deadsands, the wasteland around Deepgate. Though war has been going on for years, recently the battles have become less violent, partly due to the carpet-bombing of diseases and poisons by the airships of Deepgate. The city is more troubled by the monthly visits of Carnival, a seemingly immortal angel-turned-bad, whose body requires regular infusions of new blood on Scar Night. However, things change….
Rite of passage novel? Young protagonist makes good? Gods and goddesses? Descent into hell and resurrection? (Paradise Lost? Dark Materials?) Read it all before, right?
With such a précis, my first thoughts of the book (unfairly) was that it could be rather formulated. Alan’s book has a lot of very ‘cool stuff’ that you can see being a bag of must-haves in a computer game – big landscapes (in this case, a large city overhanging hell), ghosts and gods, cool airships, wastelands, angels, big weapons, swords of symbolism. This is perhaps to be a little expected - although this is Alan Campbell’s first book, in another life he worked as coder/designer on the computer games Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and GTA: San Andreas. The need for snappy events in computer games to keep the player interested works here too.
However, this book is much more than a game simulation. What wins me over with this book is both the depth and the breadth, something very unusual with a writer’s first book. The range of places, from the Gormenghastian cityscapes of Deepgate to the barren wastes of Deadsands, from the depths of the bottomless abyss (over which Deepgate hangs) to the skies containing the gas-filled airships of the Deepgate aeronauts, are explained in enough detail to make the world seem real, something which many other more experienced writers would be very keen to do.
What clearly helps is that Alan’s writing style is straightforward, yet fluid and very readable. There’s a nice sprinkling of vocabulary, which effectively conveys a mood of decay – use of words such as Presbyter, angelwine – to give it a depth, and make it feel like it has a backstory. The use of people’s names such as Fogswill and Borelock gave the book a feeling of Peake, or perhaps even Dickens.
Some of the characterisation is appealing too, with the use of many genre archtypes – the innocent of age Dill, the older priest-mentor Presbyter Sypes, whose beliefs lead to many of the book’s later problems, Dill’s young female mentor Rachael Hael, the vampyrric older angel Carnival, who has to feed every Scar Night but hates herself for it, and Poisoner Devon, a deeply twisted character as deranged as his belief in the final solution. The character of Mister Nettle, a hulk of misery, I found less convincing; though serving a clear purpose to the plot, at times his down and out persona lapsed a little too much for me into self- pity or parody.
As this is a dark fantasy, the book is filled with self-questioning and denial, pain and misery, a search for solutions to deeper questions. We would however expect nothing less, though it is sometimes difficult to maintain the seriousness of some of the stories darker elements without humour. It can be unremittingly bleak. There is humour, but very little, mainly provided by the actions and answers of Poisoner Devon or the teenage bumblings of Dill.
It is clear that the book is filled with meanings. If you can get over the idea of why people would build a city of chains over an abyss in the first place, then the idea of chains has a lot of significance through the book. This is not only the physical chains holding the city together, but also the intangible societal chains of survival through sheer hard work and abject misery which are put under tension in this book, the mental chains of characters such as Mister Nettle, Carnival and Poisoner Devon which slowly unravel as the book progresses, for lots of different reasons, and perhaps most strongly, the cultural chains of religion which bind the ancient order of society together here.
The book emphasises this by examining the influence and impact of religion in many forms – not only its effect on individuals and society but also including the point that the city’s old religion may not necessarily be what its followers think it is. It deals with gods and goddesses, the rise and fall of gods and godlike beings, many of the themes of dark fantasy.
The pace is at first subtle, yet drags you in. Though it takes a little while to get going, the final parts of the book are good and quite exciting, with catastrophic consequences that no doubt lead to the next book in the series.
So: think Steph Swainston (Year of Our War), but a little more Peake-style Gothic, think Erikson-style violence with a Mieville-style story of decay and squalor, or Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer / Book of the New Sun (though a little more straightforward), or perhaps mostly Ian R. MacLeod (Light Ages) combined with an engaging plot, endearing, if not enduring, characters and towards its end a pleasingly page-turning pace.
In summary, a book that is unusual enough to be noticed amongst many others with similar grand themes, though not as radical as some might want it to be. Definitely an impressive debut, a real page-turner and thus recommended to those who are happy in dark fantasy’s misery.
Alan has a website dedicated to the book at http://www.panmacmillan.com/scarnight/
Hobbit, August 2006
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