Alan Campbell's previous novel, God of Clocks (2009), was mad, in the best possible sense. In my Strange Horizons review, I called it an "exuberant, bloody and brilliant novel" and bloody brilliant is probably the best summation of Campbell's whole oeuvre. It did take the Deepgate Codex a trilogy to build up a full head of steam, though, whereas Campbell's latest novel, Sea of Ghosts, manages it in a single book. So it is no surprise that the first volume of the Gravedigger Chronicles goes off like a rocket, but there is an unexpectedly long pause before it spectacularly explodes.
The novel opens with a woman buying magical pornographic nicknacks in a vast underground bazaar: "You must read it all to discover its value, passion, sexual ecstasy, horror and peril. Anything is possible between the covers of such a book" (p. 2). Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. Suddenly an albino child appears and everyone does a runner; after all, as any fan of horror films knows, there is nothing scarier than a mysterious little girl. Then the commandos of Imperial Infiltration Unit 7 show up. Then a supernatural pirate lord pitches in with a bloody dragon:
The beast was small for its species, perhaps sixty feet from its snout to the tip of its tail. It wore a suit of glazed white armour chased with silver, each plate exquisitely shaped to hg its serpentine body and its short, powerful limbs. Shards of crystal glinted on its gauntlets and again on its long tapered helmet, wherein burned its blood-red eyes. It nuzzled the Unmer child until she giggled. (p. 12)
So it is fair to say I thought Campbell was pursuing a similarly exuberant path. But, in the aftermath, Colonel Thomas Granger spills a few ill-advised home truths to the emperor and his crack commando unit are sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. They promptly escape from a maximum stockade to the Losoto underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire: The Gravediggers.
Well, no. The thrills and spills and bellyaches of this secondary world A-Team are immediately averted by Campbell slamming on the brakes, breaking up the team and skipping forward six years. After the high-octane fifty page prologue, it is a shock to the system for the reader and it takes another fifty pages (and a fair bit of contrivance and card shuffling) before the momentum builds back up. It's obvious why Campbell thought he needed to break Granger down to rock bottom in order to impel him heedlessly down an unstoppable path of rescue and revenge, but Campbell's fiction is like a shark: it needs to keep moving forwards and it needs to bite chunks out of things. His characters are chewy but this is not a character study and too much focus on interiority exposes that.
But I am an unabashed fan of Alan Campbell's work and I'm pleased to say I unreservedly love this book, failings and all. Partly this is because the payoff is worth it; when the novel does explode, you are left slack-jawed and cooing at each escalating wave of the blitz. Partly it is because it is just so much gnarly, out of this world fun along the way. I've already mentioned the stunning foot-to-the-floor opening so I will restrain myself from mentioning my favorite set pieces (including an epically exponential battle to the death halfway through) and allow the reader to discover these for their self. Instead, I will suggest the tone by returning to something I addressed in my last review for Strange Horizons: the triumph of New Weird, the subgenre that we were told could never exist. Turns out that if you will it, it is no dream. Campbell is one of the people who has steered it from literary in-joke to commercial reality, so hats off to him. As always, it is the incidentals that pleasingly oddify the story: a man whose "clockwork eye ticked with the steady precision of a detonator, the small blue lens shuttling back and forth in its socket" (p. 50) or an undead nobleman who shoots void arrows that can bore through an entire city in an instant through some sort of macroscopic quantum tunneling.
But Campbell's most eerie little invention both defines his world and provides him with a central visual metaphor. These are the ichusae, small green bottles that ceaselessly spew toxic brine, poisoning the sea, drowning the land, and turning humans into shark-skinned beasts. The Unmer, defeated enslavers of humanity, have seeded the ocean with these in an act of environmental sabotage that amounts to slow genocide. The metaphor for climate change is succinctly made explicit early on:
"If your navy was less intent on expanding your empire and more focused on finding these ichusae," the witch replied, "there would be no further need for expansion. But you'd have them respond to the symptoms rather than cure the disease." (p. 19)
Campbell doesn't interrogate this idea but then he doesn't have to as this is no more a philosophical or political work than it is character study. Rather, Sea of Ghosts is wild, willful adventure, intelligently anchored in our own world. Fantasy seems to be particularly blessed with such writers at the moment, particularly in comparison to science fiction (on the other side of the genre garden, the protagonists of adventure fiction are less gentlemen bastards and more outright thugs). Amongst this bumper crop, Campbell still stands out. Returning to my review of God of Clocks, I praised him for "knocking out entertaining commercial fantasy in a timeframe which means you can still remember what happened in the first book." I undersold him; Alan Campbell might well be the best writer of adventure fiction in the UK at the moment. I do hope he keeps his work rate up, though. Sea of Ghosts was only published in 2011 but I want more right now.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.