Friday, May 16, 2008

Scar Night

Warning : spoilers abound

What worked

Scar Night takes place in the city of Deepgate, which is suspended in chains over an abyss.

In one sentence, that sums up why I wanted to read this book and just how imaginative a background it is. A city suspended in a web of chains like a great mechanical spider… what’s not to love? It reminded me of China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, except that New Crobuzon is a combination of technology and every bodily fluid known to man (plus a few man wasn’t aware of), whereas Deepgate is steeped in a culture of war and death, and comes off as chaotic to the core.

When the gates of Heaven were barred to humans, the god Ulcis descended into the abyss and is waiting there, gathering an army of souls which he will some day lead to storm the gates of Heaven. Deepgate was built as part of the worship of Ulcis, so corpses could be dropped into the abyss for future use in the army. But Deepgate’s enemies are on earth as well as in Heaven, and some of those are nomadic tribes living in the desert called the Deadsands. As a result, Deepgate indulges in chemical and biological warfare, with the Department of Military Science and the laboratories known as the Poison Kitchens (can you tell that I love this?). Airships provide transport for both soldiers and weapons.

Deepgate has problems from within as well. Carnival, one of the last angels, is partly insane and hides out in the city, but she emerges once each month to kill someone and drink their blood (basically, PMS to the nth degree). Draining someone of their blood is a fate worse than death to the Deepgaters, since people’s souls are in their blood. The Church assassins regularly hunt Carnival, who just as regularly slaughters them and escapes. But the head of the Church, Presbyter Sypes, hopes to find a way to restore Carnival’s sanity and then make her descend into the abyss to battle Ulcis. Only Sypes knows that rather than gathering an army to storm Heaven, Ulcis is raising his army to conquer Earth.

To heal Carnival, Sypes engages Alexander Devon, the chief scientist in the city, to make a compound called angelwine, which is sort of a Universal Panacea/Elixir of Immortality. Angelwine just happens to be derived from blood drained from living people, but any dessicated corpses will be put down to Carnival’s misdeeds.

What didn’t work

While Deepgate as a city is unique and well-realized, the characters came off as ciphers. The male protagonist (I can’t really call him a hero) is Dill, the last surviving descendant of the angels who once protected the humans. To keep him unharmed, the Church has kept him penned up and docile, to the point where he’s afraid to fly in case he gets a beating. The best that can be said about him is that he’s nice. He rescues snails and doesn’t believe the cook who tells him there’s a nice warm place waiting for said snails. Unfortunately he doesn’t do much else, and his name made me think of the character from To Kill a Mockingbird. The heroine, Rachel, is one of the kickass females who are a staple of fantasy these days. She’s one of the few Church assassins who are still capable of feeling emotion, though that emotion was too often focused on “my poor Dill”.

The antagonists were much more colorful. Carnival is a bit too random and insane and impersonal to be frightening – she’s like lightning striking, and it’s difficult to really fear lightning. Alexander Devon, also known as the Poisoner, is something else entirely – he’s grotesquely injured as a result of his work in chemistry and microbiology, and he hates the city’s culture of death because his wife also died from research-related conditions. So his plan is to heal himself with the angelwine and then lead the desert tribes against Deepgate. He's amoral, ruthless, intelligent and superb as an antagonist. I love the scene where he captures two guards, immobilizes them and tells them he’s going to drain one of them to finish the angelwine. They can decide which of them lives and which one dies. If Dill had been half as vivid or ambitious or competent, I’d have enjoyed reading his scenes.

The author, Alan Campbell, is a video game designer whose successes include Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps that’s why the city and the background are so much better drawn than the people. If you want heroes to cheer for, or realistically depicted relationships growing between characters, you won’t find them here. The book’s tone is grim and nihilistic throughout, and events at the end are somewhat implausible. I find it difficult to believe that a glass syringe can fall into an abyss and be unbroken when it hits the bottom. And if a person can do the same (which he does), maybe Sypes could have sent an army down there to take on Ulcis, rather than setting up a convoluted, doomed plan where Carnival did it? When she does, by the way, she whips a length of her shackle-chain over the neck of the immensely fat god, and I immediately thought of Princess Leia fighting Jabba the Hutt.

But in the end the city itself, swaying in its net of rusted chains over an abyss, dark and bloody and scientific, full of great details (like a scrounger’s daughter painting scenes in red and yellow because those are the only colors she can afford), was reason enough for me to read this book.


Anonymous said...

Ha ha, 'Dill', 'Carnival.' Hey, do you remember 'Faraday?' Maybe we should make a collection of fantasy names that just don't work.

Marian Perera said...

There was an explanation for "Carnival" - the name is short for "carnival freak", since she's scarred so badly. Unfortunately the reason came along very late in the story, giving me plenty of time to wonder how she could have such a name when carnivals didn't seem to exist in Deepgate.

And who could forget Faraday? Though there were plenty more unusual names in that novel to keep hers company - Axis, Priam, Belial, Belaguez, Yr, StarDrifter, etc.

colbymarshall said...

"...rescues snails" Well, that's quite an interesting profession!

kiwi said...

... hmmm, pass.

Marian Perera said...

Wow, tough crowd. :)