Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Scar Night; Alan Campbell

Recently I’ve added several UK and Canadian science fiction (and its attendants subtypes) review blogs to my feed reader. It’s via one of these, Fantasy Book Critic, that I found Alan Campbell. Scar Night is the first in his trilogy about the city of Deepgate. It was published by Bantam Dell in the UK in 2006, US publication was 2007. This is his debut title. I like to read the short little biographies I find in the back of books and on some review sites, it turns out Mr. Campbell was a video game software designer for such games as Grand Theft Auto. It shows very clearly in this book. Scar Night is extremely visual which is central to the atmosphere and the setting of the story.

Thematically, several things stood out for me. On a large scale: exploration of how individuals and groups cope with death, vengeance, how geography helps form the perceptions of whole peoples. How gullible we humans can be when we dearly want to believe what we are told. Mr. Campbell has created a reality where the entire world is the playground of the Gods, where human beings are pawns without worth, where angels are weapons of war. It’s a fascinating and complex world.

The plot is obliquely approached: it was hard to get a handle on it due to uneven pacing and elements that were helpful to understanding what was happening were placed late in the book. Basically we have a city ruled by fear of things that go bump in the night, a city whose entire existence is due to the angels’ war eons ago. Over a period of time, things don’t add up- not all of the bodies found can be attributed to “the thing that goes bump in the night”- the angel Carnival. Once a month Carnival drains one victim of blood & leaves the body behind. Carnival is several thousand years old. Her body is almost completely covered with scars. This has continued for as long as anyone can remember. No one can stop her.

One night a young woman named Abigail Nettle is found dead, dead and drained of blood. This means that she can’t be buried in the traditional manner approved by the church. Mr. Nettle goes on a one man crusade to find his daughter. Meantime, a young angel named Dill is being kept in isolation at the cathedral in the city. Purposefully raised with very little contact with others, Dill is practically a prisoner. One day the Presbyter in charge of the cathedral, seemingly of the very religion, assigns Dill a bodyguard/tutor/babysitter named Rachael Hael. Dill is the only child of one of the last angels. Rachael was in training to become one of the church’s military members, an emotionless automaton titled a ‘Spine’, however, her brother Mark refuses to give his permission for her to undergo the final examination. The reader follows Dill, Rachel, Mr. Nettle and a selection of church members as events unfold in Deepgate.

Let me say first, before I go into the issues I have with this book, and they were several and serious, that I find Mr. Campbell’s voice compelling & I care about these characters. Rachael and Carnival and Arch Chemist Devon are absolutely my favorite characters. Carnival in particular is worthy of her own book. Rachael and Carnival together as fighting pair would have been incredible. I’ve already borrowed the second book.

The biggest problem is uneven pacing. Passage of time within the story felt like it was in super slow motion . It took over one hundred pages to move thirty six hours. Then you get one sentence where several days or more pass and then we’re onto more or less normal time. The second problem I had was placement of certain storyline information late in the book. It made Scar Night unnecessarily complicated and opaque until late in the story. Third, the backstory of and relationships between certain characters wasn't fully explored. Devon and Sypes come to mind, as do Rachael and Dill. Carnival. In terms of Rachael and Dill readers are asked to believe that they somehow come to care for each other despite the fact that a) they get very little face time and most of that is action packed, not in a romantic way and b) the story itself takes place over roughly a month. In fact, Dill seemed pretty much superfluous for a while. Fourth, and this is related to number one, just as the narrative builds momentum the book is over.

So, yeah, for me Scar Night has flaws, flaws that interfered with my enjoyment of the story. However, Mr. Campbell is absolutely compelling. Mr. Nettle, Carnival and Rachael totally suck you and refuse to let go. I’m looking forward to Mr. Campbell’s future writing and I hope that he’s prolific. And available here in the US!

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