by Alan Campbell
Cover Artist: Stephen Youll
Review by John Berlyne
Spectra Mass Market Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553589320
Date: 27 January 2009 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[Editor's Note: On the publication of the mass market paperback, we're re-running John Berylne's review from our May 2008 issue.]
Alan Campbell's debut novel Scar Night was an impressively atmospheric celebration of fantasy phantasmagoria. It was set in an ancient city suspended by enormous chains over an abyss in which a dark god resides, eagerly awaiting the bodies of the city's dead. Throughout, Scar Night was filled with a sense of twisted history, of ritual preserved for so long that it had become mere nonsensical babble in the mouths of clueless priests. There was a lot of shadow and a lot of dust within its pages, and the effect was grim, gothic, and gritty. Against this backdrop Campbell offered a story that was equally well drawn -- a solid narrative with drive and momentum. It was a very impressive début. Equally impressive was Campbell's Subterranean Press novella,Lye Street, released last year, set in the same world and capturing once more the very essence of what made Scar Night such an affecting read.
And now, nearly two years later, the follow-up novel is finally published. Iron Angel is volume two of The Deepgate Codex and has been, I gather, something of a struggle for Campbell. This is not rumour-mongering -- the author has been very candid regarding the difficulties he has faced in the writing of this sequel and his blog offers a fascinating insight into the pressures of that difficult "second novel". However, whatever the process and the difficulties therein, one can only judge the result on its merits.
With the exception of a prologue, Iron Angel takes up the story from where it left off following the climactic conclusion to Scar Night. The city of Deepgate is effectively destroyed, most of it having fallen away into the abyss following the attack on the city by the poisoner Devon. The story picks up with Rachel, the rogue Spine assassin, accompanying the angel Dill as they attempt to avoid capture. They wander around a little aimlessly for a while. The aforementioned prologue sets up the other major plot thread. We meet some of the frayed and decayed gods who are somehow involved with the goings-on in this world. Campbell here adds an element not really touched upon in the preceding book -- that there is a huge war taking place between factions and that the object of the fighting is the overall control of hell itself.
This shift of focus is disorienting for the reader expecting more of the kind of thing that was so engaging in Scar Night, especially as the first third of Iron Angel implies that this expectation will be satisfied. It isn't, and ultimately this second book in the series severely lacks the feel of sequel. A prime example of this is the way in which Campbell sets up as an early core plot point the fact that a number of character sets are searching for Carnival, the angel who was the focus and star of Scar Night. I got the impression that Campbell was cannily making the reader await her appearance to heighten its effect -- but my, what crushing disappointment when she finally does appear, at an almost pointless moment, the very definition of anti-climax. Similar balls are dropped too often -- characters are set up and then abandoned, their stories left unresolved or resolved far too quickly. New characters are introduced late in the proceedings and their late arrival makes it hard for the reader to care about them.
There is throughout Iron Angel a nagging and increasing sense of incongruity. As the story goes on, it somehow becomes less connected, to both itself and to Scar Night, and the sense is that the author is fully aware of this. The solution seems to be an injection of colour and a widening of the landscape of the story. Campbell ups the ante by describing long, panoramic scenes that take place in hell, Boschesque battles full of blood and the suffering of countless souls. This increase in scale lacks the claustrophobic intimacy that was so impressive in Scar Night and serves only to dilute this thin plot even further. Consequently it becomes very hard, if not impossible, for the reader to maintain any interest in what is going on. The spectacle completely overpowers the story and this inversion is ultimately the failing of this novel, the disconnection slipping into an incomprehensible mush of plot lines that lack any effective synergy. It is -- though it is a comparison I use with some reservations -- exactly the same kind of problem that fans of Star Wars found on viewing The Phantom Menace. Plenty of action and special effects, but not much at the heart of it all.