The genesis of Scar Night and the particulars of its author's career make for an intriguing little tale in themselves. Alan Campbell began this, his debut novel, over ten years ago in Budapest, abandoning it after a few pages. During the subsequent decade he worked as a games designer for Rockstar, having a hand in the Grand Theft Auto series, eventually quitting and taking a crash course in creative writing. The resulting page-turner of an urban fantasy makes Campbell's arrival into the world of literature a cause for celebration.
Welcome to the city of Deepgate, a gothic nightmare of architectural audacity and morbid religious ritual. Suspended above a black abyss by a vast and ancient network of huge chains, Deepgate's skyline, like its society, is dominated by the temple at its creaking, sagging centre. Here is where the city brings its dead, who with appropriate ceremony are dropped en masse into the black gulfs below, in theory to be resurrected within the city of Deep by the outcast angel-god Ulcis. Once Ulcis has accrued a large enough army of Deepgate's dead citizens, so the priests assure the populace, he will rise from the pit and overthrow his mother Ayen, who has cruelly barred mankind forever from entering heaven's gates. The city is engaged in a centuries-old, on-off war with the occupants of the desert wastelands which surround Deepgate on all sides—nomadic "heathens" who persist in worshiping Ayen. Deepgate's armies have the upper hand here; not only are they equipped with military airships which facilitate air strikes, but also with the weapons designed—or, rather, brewed—by the chemist Devon. A studious, genteel man, Devon is a passionate and dedicated poisoner, whose exquisitely designed chemical weapons are largely responsible for Deepgate's continued existence. More on him later.
When it comes to keeping its faith alive, the church has a card up its sleeve which religion in the real world generally has to manage without: a living, breathing angel. Dill is a church archon, the last in a prestigious line of warrior angels which dates all the way back to Callis, an angel who rose from the pit to bring the word of Ulcis to man and to initiate Deepgate‘s construction. Basically an awkward teenager with wings, Dill is hardly venerated by the other occupants of the Temple, but is valued nonetheless as a visual prop to its public funeral rites. Having just turned sixteen, he's been assigned a trainer-cum-bodyguard in the form of one of the Spine, the church's private army of assassins—deadly and troubled teenager Rachael.
To make life even more jolly, the city's occupants must endure the monthly hunting forays of the lethal Carnival, a female angel of indeterminate theological affiliation with a penchant for self-scarring. Despite the best efforts of the Spine, when the titular scar night roles around and the moon has fully waned, Carnival hunts down a single victim and drains their blood, thereby ingesting the victim's soul and perpetuating her own tortured existence.
Deepgate's grim but stable routine is threatened when more drained corpses begin to appear, more than Carnival's predations can account for. The only explanation is that someone is manufacturing Angelwine, the outlawed distillation of souls which grants the drinker near immortality and a slow-developing lunacy. As all parties become entangled in the search for the Angelwine, events threaten to escalate into chaos and bloodshed.
You'll have recognised a few familiar fantasy and horror tropes in the above synopsis, and you'll notice several more if, as I recommend, you read this novel. Utilising elements of Christian and vampire mythology, Campbell also borrows freely from sources like Ghormenghast, Dickens, and the traditional coming of age parable. Re-inventing rather than recycling, (it's not often you get to read about a vampire angel whose modus operandi also hints at lycanthropic tendencies), Campbell serves up a dark, explosive fantasy that singles him out as one to watch.
His prose is vivid and evocative; Deepgate in particular is lovingly depicted, in passages which are as aural and tactile as they are visual. Here you're haunted by the creak and groan of a thousand chains of various sizes, a "tangle of metal that the smallest breath of wind set quivering and singing ", and elsewhere by smog so thick that "when you spat you looked to check if it was black" (p. 54). When it does come to visual description, Campbell has the eye of a film director, creating almost cinematic images in the mind:
A smoking fuel burner set low on the wall cast long shadows as he walked, intermittently covering and revealing the bruises on the two guards' faces. (p.268)
He's also unafraid to discard or re-mould fantasy traditions as he sees fit; if, for example, many fantasy writers remain loyal to the notion of a particular type of old-world vernacular, Campbell sees no reason not to use contemporary colloquialisms from our world if it will make his dialogue more fun to read:
Blood streaked the God's battered face. His massive chest rose and fell from exertion. He said, "You, my child, have seriously pissed me off." (p. 480)
The characters, although sometimes a little too familiar or stereotyped (did Fogwill need to be quite so camp?) are solidly realised and believable, largely as a result of Campbell's ear for dialogue. Take Devon, the character who leaves the strongest impression: whilst clearly part of a long tradition of erudite, intellectual villains in the Dr Moriarty/Hannibal Lecter vein, he brings originality to the role through an intriguing mixture of cruelty interspersed with unexpected moments of compassion. Also memorable is the grizzled scavenger Mr Nettle; brutalised but decent, he is father to one of the recent murder victims. His quest to avenge his daughter's death and retrieve her soul forms a back-story as compelling as it is pitiful, underscoring the novel's central theme of people driven by extremes.
For all his considerable promise, Campbell's narrative, like Deepgate itself, does have a few weak links which reveal him as a writer still learning the ropes of his new profession. While clearly fond of the Dickensian/Mervyn Peake tradition of giving a character a name which onomatopoeically captures the essence of their personality, he hasn't yet perfected the technique himself: my mind's eye persisted in seeing Mr Nettle as spindly, long after the narrative had made it plain he was build like a tank. And whilst we're on the subject of character, its got to be said that the darker ones often threaten to elbow the sympathetic ones off the page. Dill, who the narrative initially presents as the main character, suffers from what we might call "Luke Skywalker Syndrome"; he's a nice enough chap, but he's hopelessly outshone by his more morally challenged contemporaries, in this case the fascinatingly pitiless Devon and the cursed, predatory Carnival. That Rachael succeeds as a character we care about is largely because of the darker, more haunted regions of her own personality; as a member of the Spine, she‘s kicked a butt or two, but never having undergone the emotion-nullifying process of Tempering, her involvement in the church's near-genocidal wars has left her doubtful and traumatised. Campbell himself seemingly becomes aware of Dill's limitations as a leading man, astutely switching the spotlight to the real stars of the show as the novel progresses.
Furthermore, if you happen to be of the ilk which prefers a mystery to stay that way till the end, you may balk at the way the story ditches the whodunit element halfway through. What begins as a sort of supernatural murder mystery transforms into an uninhibited adrenaline rush of a read; a hell of a lot of fun, but there'll be some readers out there who will miss the shadowy intrigue of the first section of the book. However, Scar Night remains a remarkably polished and confident debut, making the "First in the Series" tagline a welcome bit of news; Volume 2 of The Deepgate Codex can't come too soon.
Sharing some superficial similarities and having the odd thematic resonance with the above novel, but in most respects occupying the opposite end of the fantasy spectrum, is Jay Amory's The Fledging of Az Gabrielson. A somewhat twee debut that will nonetheless hold a fair bit of interest for its target audience of children, the novel tells of a future humanity which has undergone an evolutionary split. The winged Airborn race live in sky cities which perch atop vast columns, hundreds of feet above the perpetual grey cloud that now covers the whole of the Earth. Beneath this cloud live the somewhat less fortunate Groundlings, generally believed to be extinct by the Airborn. The Groundling's society revolves around keeping the sky cities' supply elevators full, a process most of Airborn society believe is automated. This procedure is overseen by the Deacons; top dogs in this harsh, economically divided society, they constitute a sort of blend between factory overseers and religious leaders, organising the collection of goods from the populace and promising them Ascension after death in return, resurrection as an Airborn in the sky cities above. But unrest is brewing in some quarters of this impoverished underclass ...
When the supply elevators begin coming up empty, the Airborn leaders are sent into a flap (the novel is jammed with similar mild to moderately successful bird-orientated puns) and decide they'd best send someone down to spy out the situation. Who better to blend in than sixteen year old Az Gabrielson, an isolated loner whom cruel mother nature saw fit to deprive of wings?
As a children's book, The Fledgling ... ticks many of the right boxes. The pace, for example, is nice and rapid, with the novel chopped into chapters averaging three pages apiece. And once Az is on the ground, the action rarely lets up. Az himself gradually grows on you, climbing a steep character development arc from morose teen to a hero you genuinely like; the coming-of-age motif, likewise utilised in Scar Night, is probably stronger in this novel. The dialogue, which seems a little clunky during the first few chapters, comes to life with Az's befriending of the Grubdollars, Groundlings who make a living scavenging the wasteland for scraps fallen from the sky city and whose colourful vernacular contrasts nicely with Az's upper-class diction. And like the best of children's authors, Amory knows his intended audience don't want or need to be molly-coddled; like Road Dahl, he knows violence and death have their place in children's literature:
The Deacon's scream was horrifying. Worse, though, was the sizzle that his skin made as the pipe cooked it, and the stench that came off it, sweet and meaty and all too similar to the odour of frying bacon. (p. 306)
So far, so good. It's the novel's treatment of its central theme that makes me uncomfortable. Where Scar Night took place pretty much entirely within the borders of its own political and social realm, the upheaval in the Groundlings' society is overtly depicted in terms of a socialist, perhaps communist revolution. Frankly, the reds don't come off well. The "Humanists," as the anti-establishment rebels call themselves, are opposed to the Deacons' hefty goods taxation, dismissing the notion of Ascension as a fallacy and arguing that they would do better to use all of their limited resources on improving their own impoverished lot. I'd say they have a point, but Amory doesn't seem to agree. The Humanist leader Steamarm is portrayed as a cynical manipulator, his concern for the people a mask concealing his real goal of power. True, the narrative is not entirely one-sided in this regard; at one point Lord Urielson concedes that, if the Deacons are indeed exploiting the Groundlings, then the Airborn are "guilty of the same crime" (p. 251). Nor does the narrative reserve its ire exclusively for the Humanists, also mocking the exploitative potential inherent in organised religion. And yet unlike Steamarm, the Deacons, whilst blinkered and complacent, appear to be in earnest, and mostly we are asked to agree with Den Grubdollar, an honest working-class Groundling and staunch anti-Humanist, when he warns his politically-active sons that: "Them's a dangerous lot, them Humanists, I'll tell you that. Trying to upset the status quo, them are, and it'm be the ruin of us all if them succeeds. There'm a balance in the way things are" (p. 99).
Even the ending, whilst suggesting the possibility of a more equal society, also implies that this is likely to be on the Airborn's terms. Like the unapologetic elitism of the Narnia chronicles, these aspects of the novel don't sit too well in the stomach.
Children's novels can be divided into two categories: those that manage the tricky and lucrative leap across the age-gap, giving the adults enough to get their teeth into without sending the kids back to the Xbox, and those which are for the youngsters alone. The Fledgling of Az Gabrielson fails to make that leap, offering little, I suspect, to anyone on the wrong side of fourteen. Where the simple language in, for example, Terry Pratchett's Bromeliad series equated to easy reading, here that same simplicity is too leading, to clunky for adult sensibilities. Furthermore Jay Amory is too exposition-prone, spelling out a character's motives in a manner which is likely to induce weariness in an adult reader. Children's books though they are, that section of Pratchett's output aimed, as his blurb puts it, "at children of all ages," boasts characters whose motives are demonstrated through their actions and speech, the narrative voice rarely needing to intrude. Jay Amory's debut cannot make that boast. Nonetheless, this novel—which, like Scar Night, is the first in a series; this is Book One of The Clouded World—will probably appeal to the younger members of the reading public, many of whom surely need a holiday from wizard school.
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.