Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book review: "Scar Night" by Alan Campbell

"Scar Night", and whole "The Deepgate Codex" trilogy by Alan Campbell has been in my wish-list for few years now, but somehow there was always something with higher priority. Since I planned to have a two-week vacation around Christmas and there were no high-profile books on schedule right now, I decided to include SN to my reading-pile. From reading blurbs and comments on Amazon, I knew that book took place in some unique setting and that included vampires and angels - not the usual characters in my favorite books. Phrase "urban fantasy" was also thrown occasionally.

I have to admit I have been wrong about this term. I thought that urban fantasy means some combination of classical fantasy elements with contemporary setting - kind of "Twilight", "Vampire Diaries", "Buffy", etc. Although I don't immediately judge this type of books/series as bad, they are not my typical pair of sleeves. So when I read one praise of front cover telling how good urban fantasy book this it, I half-way reconciled with this being a wrong choice. After reading it, I am happy to say that I learned two new things: "Scar Night" is a great book and urban fantasy only means that the story takes place in some kind of a city (whether historic, imagined or contemporary, it doesn't matter). This would mean that the "Perdido Street Station" by China MiƩville, a book I really liked, is also an urban fantasy even though I didn't realize it.

Now, let's get back to the book. "Scar Night" takes place in very unique setting of Deepgate city. This is a large city build completely on network of chains and suspended over enormous chasm. Why would someone do a thing like that, you ask? Because the chasm is a home of Ulcis, the God of Chains. Three thousand years ago, Ulcis was banished from the Heaven and thrown in this deep pit. Calis, his greatest angel and leader of Ninety-Nine (other angels) helped neighboring tribes of establish there a city and a religion. And this religion tells that all loyal believers, after death and being thrown in Ulcis' pit, will found their new eternal life there and join Ulcis' armies that will one day retake the Heaven. Now, three thousand years later, Deepgate is the only city on continent and its airships control all territory in surrounding - except small conclaves inhabited by nomadic infidels Heshettes. Dill is a young angel and only surviving descendant of Calis. Since his role will be mostly ceremonial, he has been ignored and left to wander the Temple alone. Now has come the time for him to take his role as figure of faith.

This is where our story starts. I don't see any way of describing it in some details without revealing major spoilers. Let's just say that, although somewhat predictable, plot is very well written and never boring. Pace is good, with lots of things going on. I presume you will be able to guess many things once you reach middle of the book, but there will be few surprises and you will not be disappointed.

First few chapters were somewhat hard to read. It is a quite original setting and Campbell really doesn't pamper the reader, so I was confused at first. But after this initial hardship, story flow without any turbulence - this was one of those books you just can't stop reading.

As the setting, characters are also unique point of this book. Dill, presented from the start as main characters, actually doesn't have much importance as one would expect. He servers as one of POVs and through him we learn much about setting and plot, but he is not a factor in the story. Mostly he is just following what others and fate prepare for him. Sure, he makes few important choices and does a lot of growing up, but I get a feeling this was only introduction to his character and he will play a bigger role in later books. Rachel is probably the real main character of this book. Nicely written female character, one that doesn't accept things as they are and fights her fate; with her troubled background, she makes one enjoyable character. Carnival is another strong female character, but a more tragic one - something of a fallen angel. Devon is one perfect mad scientist - I must say I was surprised about his later importance and role, but I was also delighted with his story. Other supporting characters (Presbyter Sypes, Fogwill, Clay...) are all nicely written.

One of the biggest positive surprises was Mr Nettle. When he was introduced at the beginning I didn't like him, but later he become a real star of the book. I must say I was a bit disappointed with ending, because it didn't deal with his fate as much as it should have, but I hope that this only means that he will appear again. For those who had read "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester, it is enough to say that Mr Nettle was obviously made with Gulliver Foyle as model. His adventure in the Maze was one of the best parts of the book.

I've read somewhere that Campbell has a role in making of Grand Theft Auto. I don't know how important that role was, but I can totally believe it. This book is very gritty and brutal, as is humor in it. I am accustomed to all kinds of abnormal jokes and stories, but I was surprises with the joke Devon played on Heshettes with the rags - it was an original joke, but a brutal one. Nevertheless, the humor in the book is very good and it made me chuckle quite few times.

My only objection to the book is actually only a potential objection. The book is good as it is - it is a compact and encapsulated unit, with no loose ends. It has definite ending and the only thing that announce a sequel is last few sentences. If this sequel proves to be a good book, then all is OK. But I am afraid that it could turn out to be just an unplanned sequel whose only purpose is to pull more money from the people who liked the original. I presume we'll see after reading this sequel, "The Iron Angel".

As it is, "Scar Night" was one great book. It has original setting and unbelievably good character; although the story is a bit more predictive, it is still complex and enjoyable. A definite recommendation for those who like grittier and darker fantasy.

Happy New Year, by the way!!

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