The Waking Engine
by David Edison
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Jon Guenther
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765334862
Date: 11 February 2014 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
I wish I had better news regarding this debut novel by David Edison, but the plain fact is The Waking Engine defies even the most conservative label of science fiction. I could have accepted it as a form of dystopic SF had it been well written but again, I'd be remiss in my duties as a reviewer to tout it as falling within the accepted practices of world-building. And I cannot refrain from pointing out that the publisher (or someone) decided to describe the book as "richly imaginative and baroque". That sounds more like paranormal fantasy and weak, at best.
While no book could be labeled "all bad" I didn't encounter much to get me excited about this one. The initial plot concept was intriguing enough to prompt me to request it for review. This is the story of Cooper--a citizen of Manhattan who has died and wakes up in the City Unspoken, which serves as a sort of strangely realized gateway between mortal first death and a place Mr. Edison calls True Death. After that initial intrigue, divulged within the first few pages of the book, the thing seems to fall apart.
The remainder of our trip is almost a third-person tour through a metaverse of disparate scenes that are heavy on exposition and practically absent of any clear story direction. The characters seemed to be almost a hodgepodge of variations on the same directionless template, few of them more than skin deep and nearly all leaving me with a strange longing to find a single one I could appreciate or even care about.
What I thought this book lacked more than anything else were the deep human themes one comes to expect from good science fiction literature. Chief among these shallow realizations is a protagonist who cannot decide if he's heterosexual, homosexual, or both. Not to mention a cast of supporting characters who seem bent on performing the most egregious acts of violence and sadism against one another without any clear reasons. And then there is the obvious disdain for establishment of stringent rules within the City Unspoken, whether those rules describe the magic or technology of this existence. It's my belief that latter disregard comes from the indecision of Mr. Edison to clarify for the reader just where we're at and what's really going on. If he doesn't know, it cannot be assumed I know either and that's a frustrating place to be as a reader.
Finally, our heroes--most of whom seem wholly undeserving of their titles--are pitted against a Hydra of an enemy described as if it had come straight from the script of a 1950s B-movie. The payoff of this novel is so derivative and lazily imagined, in fact, that the most redeeming part of the book for me was when I finally closed it. I suppose there may be a few readers who will find that assessment too harsh but I have to be honest: The Waking Engine was a huge disappointment for me. The lackluster writing combined with the poor characterization and failure to engage me in the stakes, provided little in the way of an emotional anchor.
I don't recommend it save for the most forgiving or eclectic SF readers.