An abyss. Fallen angels. Steampunk-style airships. Poison Kitchens. And chains. Lots of chains.
Alan Campbell’s Scar Night has all the ingredients to make a pretty darn good start to a fantasy trilogy. The city of Deepgate – a city suspended by gargantuan chains, strung precariously across the opening to a mysterious abyss – is a fantastic setting, which Campbell uses to great effect in scenes of shady dealings in rusting warehouses, perilous flights across swaying walkways, and fights in abandoned planetariums (to name but a few). The enigma of what lies below the city is also skilfully set up. The citizens of Deepgate commend their dead to this yawning pit, their religion dictating that the souls of these corpses (preserved in their blood) will be taken in by Ulcis, their fallen God, creating an army that will eventually rise to the heavens to reclaim Ulcis’s place in his celestial abode. So say the priests of Deepgate’s Temple, anyway. But someone in the city is stealing souls, draining bodies of their blood so that Ulcis cannot receive them. Who? And why? Add to this the ancient, mad angel who takes a human soul every Scar Night, and we’ve got a dark and dangerous medley of intrigue, violence, and secrets…
I like this kind of thing.
Campbell’s ideas are compelling, the setting of Deepgate original and exciting. The mystery surrounding the religious beliefs of the characters served to generate an aura of suspense, and Campbell didn’t disappoint when it came to unearthing the darker sides of his creation (not that it wasn’t dark in the first place!). We’re also treated to frequent interjections of (black) humour throughout, which stops the novel from wallowing in its own dreariness, keeping the tone vivid and the book extremely readable.
I do have some grumbles, though. For a start, the book took a while to really get going. I feel as though this is an odd thing to say; after all, from the very beginning we are introduced to Mr Nettle, a man on a relentless quest to discover who killed his daughter, and to the threat of Carnival, the insane angel who prowls the city whilst constantly hunted by a group of Temple assassins. But despite all of this, it still took a while for me to really become gripped by the story. And I have a feeling that it wasn’t due to plotting per se, but instead to characterisation.
Campbell’s got some good characters in here: Dill, the Temple angel who wishes he was more like the Battle Archons of old; Rachel, the Spine assassin who has yet to have her emotions ‘tempered’ like the other Spine; Presbyter Sypes, the priest who seems to be verging on senility but is surprisingly perceptive; Devon, the city’s bitter Poisoner; Mr Nettle, as aforementioned; Carnival also. They’re a colourful and exciting cast, but some characters develop more successfully than others. I enjoyed Mr Nettle and Devon, and in my opinion the best-realised character was Carnival, with her bloodthirsty but tortured existence. Campbell does as excellent job with her, and she provides many surprising twists and awesome action throughout the narrative.
But Campbell falls down when it comes to Dill and Rachel. This is surprising, seeing as they are (arguably) the most likeable and sympathetic characters in the book. Dill is presented as one of – if not the – major protagonists, but to be honest, he’s pretty dull. In fact, it takes until p. 329 for him to really do anything exciting. From then on, his character arc does get more interesting, but the build-up is too slow and by then I’d lost a lot of my original interest in him. Rachel’s character also takes a while to come out properly. It’s not that I wanted lots of internal monologuing or exposition, but I felt that I couldn’t really get a grip on her for a long time. Because of these problems, the relationship between Rachel and Dill – which becomes so important later on – is not really very convincing. We don’t get enough initial development from either of them to really engage us in their later exploits. It makes me wonder whether Campbell enjoyed writing them or not; he seems to put more oomph into the more savage and/or twisted characters…
That said, the climax of the book is cracking – and the quibbles I have with character development don’t do much to detract from the dark and rip-roaring action sequences that make up the book’s final few chapters. I had a small reservation about the battle sequence out on the Deadsands (it might have been more detailed, or better thought-out, or something… can’t quite put my finger on it), but overall the book’s final third serves up an exciting (if brutal) conclusion that doesn’t disappoint.
It also leaves you hanging (and other things, too, but let’s not spoil it too much). And yes, my curiosity is piqued; I want to know where Campbell is going to go with this. So I will be reading the next one – maybe not immediately, but soon enough.
Conclusion: An action-packed book with a great, steampunk-inspired setting and strong concepts, though let down in some areas by weak character development. Still, a fun read with an exhilarating climax – but not one for the squeamish!