When I reviewed Scar Night a while back I gave it a glowing review, so I approached its sequel Iron Angel with fairly high expectations. Happily, these were pretty much met.
As in Scar Night, the characters populating Iron Angel are not noteworthy for their happy, carefree existences. Man and demigod alike are still barred from heaven, leaving the lord of hell and his Mesmerists, and the dispossessed gods, to war for dominance. Thrust into this battle-torn world are two of the surviving characters from the first novel, the Spine Assassin Rachael and the angel Dill. Deadly though she is, Rachael has never submitted to the Tempering process—a standard Spine Assassin procedure consisting of a combination of torture and poisoning which strips those who undergo it of emotion. Dill, something of a wet blanket, is a direct descendant of one of the original angels cast out of heaven. Unwilling participants in the agendas of the warring factions, they strive to evade capture and death with varying degrees of success.
Scar Night was a darkly stylish first novel. It featured the intertwining tales of various gods, angels, combinations thereof, plus a sizeable cast of humans so we wouldn't feel left out, and was mostly set in the ghormenghast- like city of Deepgate. Some of these characters are sadly absent here for reasons of redundancy or death, but fear not, for in part two of The Deepgate Codex Alan Campbell has created more than enough new ones to fill their boots. He's also expanded the scope of his story considerably, offering up many more locations and characters than were to be found in his debut. The story stretches from the remains of Deepgate to the surrounding desert, to the shores of Pandemeria to the very depths of hell. And Campbell's descriptive abilities have only got better since Scar Night, his ability to paint pictures in the mind's eye all the stronger: "Another explosion in the chained city bloomed in the assassin's silvered lenses" (p 46).
Descriptions of Hell are particularly vivid, reading like Lewis Carol on a bad dose of Ketamine; of the various fates awaiting the souls in hell are consumption, mutation, oblivion, or becoming a living part of the Maze—an infinitely vast, multi-story amalgamation of rooms and chambers, each of which simultaneously contains a soul, and is made of that soul. And of the numerous new characters filling the pages, Anchor is particularly memorable: enormous and jovial, he walks the land with a vast rope attached to his back, which extends up into the clouds he brings with him, and attached to which is a huge airship, the domain of sea god Cospinol. If a building blocks his path, this rather Gilliam-esque character wades through it, his rope cutting through timber and concrete.
As with any sequel, there's the question of whether you need to have the first book under your belt already. The answer here is probably not. There are really only two characters from the first novel present, and Campbell handles their backstory deftly enough. It needs to be said, however, that at times the novel comes close to collapsing under its own complexity. Inattentive readers beware: you may well lose your footing negotiating the various factions and alliances that make up the story, and there are times when the story gets blown off course by the sheer number of characters and descriptions. If these are mostly good, there are a few unnecessary characters here and there, and it's hard to find a central narrative to cling to amidst the maelstrom; the first novel focused on three or four main characters, whilst Iron Angel has closer to seven or eight vying for your attention. What's more, some of these appear early on, their goals are established, and they then disappear from the story for lengthy periods of time, or altogether. In short, the structure is not as sound as that of Scar Night. Read Iron Angel anyway—all loose ends will, I'm sure, be tied up in volume three—but keep a little patience in reserve. And it
Oh yes, one more thing: the blood. How could I have forgotten? Iron Angel is positively dripping crimson, from the blood-mist the Mesmerists need for their survival on earth, to the stains on the blades of their various living weapons, to the red mud the characters frequently find themselves wading through. Iron Angel, in fact, is dark fantasy with extra darkness added. Wince at Dill's bleeding feet as he tries to pull himself free of his soul-room in hell; gag at the endless fields of blood where thousands were butchered. It would be unreasonable to call Iron Angel a gore-fest, but not that unreasonable; Campbell seems to have a slightly troubling fascination with blood and suffering. Gore-hounds should love it.
Campbell earned himself a lot of critical goodwill when he delivered as confident and effective debut as Scar Night, but by the same token he set his own bar higher than most fledgling novelists. Does Iron Angel make the grade? The answer is a definite yes, but he'll be better yet when he learns to reign in his narrative when it threatens to bolt. Quibbles aside, Iron Angel is a success, with a delicious cliffhanger at the end. Part three of The Deepgate Codex is definitely on my reading list.
Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England. He is usually to be found in his local library, pub, or bookstore, and will get around to doing a PhD one of these days.