Alan Campbell’s debut trilogy: strong beginning, slapdash conclusion.

Alan Campbell. Scar Night (TOR 2006), Iron Angel (2008), God of Clocks 2009): The Deepgate Codex.

Scar Night, the first volume of this trilogy, got rave reviews, & is certainly a fine example, as a first novel, of a fairly complex, steampunk, other worlds fantasy. Set mostly in Deepgate, the city built by the Church of Ulcis (one of the fallen sons of the goddess Ayen, who shut them all out of ‘heaven’ when they turned against her; there is a very tangled theology to be worked out in the trilogy), it is the story of Dill, the last angel of his line, Rachel Hael, a Church of Ulcis Spine assassin assigned to him (& who is still fully human not having been ‘tempered’ by the priests), Mr. Nettle, a very strong worker whose daughter has been murdered, her soul unsaved, Arch Chemist & Poisoner Alexander Devon (who is seeking to create an elixir of eternal life out of the souls of 13 people he is murdering), & the 3000 year old angel, Carnival, who has survived by ‘eating’ human souls on Scar Night for centuries. These five encounter each other & many others in a multiply skeined narrative that alters the ancient city built on huge chains suspended over a ‘bottomless’ abyss. Before it’s over, Dill has died & been brought back to life by Devon’s elixir; Devon has been thrown into ‘Hell’ (such terms are used here, but always differently than in, say, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim theology), & Carnival has killed, & sucked all the blood & souls out of Ulcis, her father. But the death of a ‘god’ causes much more than just his death; & the climax includes much destruction of Deepgate, many of its chains broken & war with tribes beyond its walls. One thing all critics agree about, & I too found fascinating, is the wonderfully imagined & described city, itself.

Iron Angel begins as simply a continuation of the stories of the first novel, but Campbell has much more planned (or unplanned; many of the sudden shifts of narrative perspective, the new figures with extraordinary powers able to do strange things, feel a bit cobbled improvisedly together, yet he may have thought out all the figures & their battles etc, ahead of time: the Prologue does introduce 5 of Ulcis’s brother gods, who are fighting to keep the hordes of Hell from breaking through to the surface of the earth, but also among themselves). As the novel begins, Spine assassins capture Dill & Rachel in a river city far from Deepgate & bring them back to the ruined city where the huge church now hangs upside down, there to temper them, as they have done to countless citizens. They run Deepgate now, taking over from the priests of Ulcis, & refusing to understand either that he is truly dead or what his death says about all ‘angels’ or ‘gods.’ Meanwhile dead spirits from the abyss keep sifting up to the surface, & one, a long dead angel warrior usurps Dill’s body, sending his spirit down to Hell, where the last warrior angels fight on against the Mesmerist hordes of King Menoa, who is working to conquer the upper world. Campbell then brings the huge skyship of one of Ulcis’s brothers, Cospinol, the god of seas & fog, to the fore, & introduces the immortal man who pulls it across the earth, John Anchor. Anchor hauls this ship to Deepgate’s continent & eventually meets up with the escaped Rachel & the old angel now inhabiting Dill’s body; he also befriends Deepgate’s traditional enemies, the Heshette, as well as a cutthroat who will play a part in developing narrative lines. Another section of the novel recounts Dill’s spirit’s adventures in Hell, & his eventual capture by Menoa’s Icarate, who will construct a huge metal angel (of the title) around his soul. The novel ends in Pandemonia, the continent from which Cospinol & Anchor came, where various figures, both working for the other gods &, traitorously, for King Menoa, gather for a huge battle, which Menoa has carefully planned will happen. At the end, he has triumphed against Rys, the god of flowers and knives (although what happens to Rys himself is not clear), & Rachel, Mina, a thaumaturge & her demon dog, & Hasp, another brother god beaten by Menoa, with the freed archon, Dill, are trying to evade the 12 other archons Menoa had built to conquer the armies of the surface world.

God of Clocks takes off from that point. It moves toward a grand climax, but also introduces even more sudden changes in character, action, & narrative ontology. Once Rachel & her companions, encountering along the way, not always peacefully, some groups of people, finally arrive at the castle of Sabor, the god of clocks, things fall apart. Indeed, in this, the trilogy’s final novel, every chapter starts a new narrative hare. The Rachel narrative seems to utilize discursive lumps of explanation more than before, such as Sabor’s explanation to Rachel of how the sons of Ayen fell, & how she, like Ulcis, had a half human child, & who he is. But it also introduces, or forces forward an earlier hint of, alternate time lines or universes in which different versions of their story play out. And in the Anchor John/Carnival/Menoa story many new figures & plot possibilities appear. What was a singular & powerful tale of five individuals involved in a spiritual & physical war in Scar Night has morphed into a Rube Goldberg mishmash of many other characters’ sometimes intertwined narratives. It’s all still entertaining but it has lost a lot of the dark power of the first volume, dissipated it into so many new twists & turns that this reader, anyway, felt a lot less involved in the major characters’ feelings & sensibilities. Only Rachel remains a really interesting figure throughout. The final few chapters feel rushed & confused; although Campbell does, more or less, tie every narrative thread up, I did not care as much as I did at the ending of Scar Night.

The Deepgate Codex begins strongly, & remains an entertaining oddball fantasy throughout, one that began by breaking away from most fantasy clichés but then fell prey to its author’s desire to throw in every pot, pan, & sink in his narrative kitchen. Many reviewers compared his work to Neil Gaiman’s, & I can see that; but it seems to me the more relevant connection is to China Miéville’s dark steampunk fantasies of his secondary world, New Crobuzon. Miéville is the more profound writer, however, who can introduce many strange new things & creatures into his world but also maintain firm control over his central narratives & his characters’ inner & outer quests. I would reread Miéville, but doubt I’ll come back to The Deepgate Codex.

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