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Monday, April 21, 2008

"Iron Angel" by Alan Campbell

Official Alan Campbell Website
Official Alan Campbell Blog
Order “Iron Angel
HERE + HERE (UK-May 2, 2008)
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of “
Scar Night” + “Lye Street
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s INTERVIEW with Alan Campbell

For me, reading Alan Campbell’s debut novel “Scar Night” was a mixed affair. On the one hand, I was really impressed by the author’s vivid imagination and couldn’t get enough of Deepgate—an ancient Gormenghastian city suspended by giant chains over a cavernous abyss that is home to Ulcis, god of chains and Hoarder of Souls—the exotic characters, and the rest of Alan’s gothic, steampunk-influenced world of fallen gods, angels, and demons. On the other hand, I was incredibly frustrated by the inconsistent writing which I felt prevented the novel from reaching its full potential and therefore had some reservations before starting the second book in The Deepgate Codex. Not only were those worries unfounded, but “Iron Angel” may just end up being one of the best fantasy novels I read this year…

Like its predecessor, “Iron Angel” is all about the environment and the aura, but where “Scar Night” primarily took place in the city of Deepgate, Alan’s new book widely broadens the canvas and takes readers all across the Deadsands, into the land of Pandemeria, and down into the depths of Hell. So if you thought Deepgate was fascinating, wait until you get a glimpse of Cinderbark Wood—a forest where every single branch, thorn, twig, and root is saturated with toxins that kill at a single touch—Pandemeria where technology is fueled by soul magic, and my personal favorite, Hell. Of this last, I was reminded of
Wayne Barlowe’s Paradise Lost-inspired novel “God’s Demon” because of the way souls are used as building materials for such things as walls, doors, weaponry and vehicles, but there the comparison ends and Alan’s lurid imagination takes over, envisioning all sorts of wonderful and macabre ideas including Icarates, witchspheres, Iolites, dogcatchers, the Legion of the Blind, shiftblades, and the colossal arconites—‘iron & bone-forged automatons built around an angel’s soul.’ Creatively, “Iron Angel” is one of the richest and most inventive novels I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing—almost every single page reveals something new—and for me the highlight of the book was discovering every unique characteristic that the world had to offer.

Almost as compelling was the story which builds on the mythos that was hinted at in “Scar Night”, specifically the War Amongst the Gods when Iril and his seven sons rebelled against the goddess Ayen and were defeated with Iril shattered to pieces throughout the Maze in Hell, the sons imprisoned on earth, and the gates to Heaven sealed. From this setup we learn that Ayen’s sons are plotting a new uprising against the goddess, but before they can accomplish that they must first defeat the upstart King Menoa and his army of Mesmerists who have been warring with the fallen gods for centuries to escape from Hell and make the world their own. Unfortunately, because of what happened at the end of “Scar Night”, a second portal to Hell has been breached under the city of Deepgate and with the gods’ forces firmly entrenched in Pandemeria, the brothers have enlisted the aid of Cospinol—god of brine & fog, the second oldest of Ayen’s sons, and the only one to remain imprisoned—to seal the portal before the Mesmerists can gain a foothold. As payment for this mission, Cospinol is told of the scarred angel Carnival, the daughter of Ayen’s eldest son Ulcis and the key to his freedom…

From here, “Iron Angel” is divided into three parts—each reads like a separate story but are connected overall—with the first set in Deepgate and the surrounding Deadsands including Sandport and the Cinderbark Wood. In this segment, ex-Spine assassin Rachel Hael and the angel Dill are trying to avoid the clutches of the Spine who are tempering everyone they can get their hands on—it’s a technique using torture and neural toxins that scours away a person’s ego & emotions, while allowing them to temporarily heighten their senses. Readers also get to visit a vastly different Deepgate, one that is literally falling apart and haunted at night by phantasms, as well as meeting for the first time John Anchor, an immortal giant who serves Cospinol by pulling his ship Rotsward and collecting souls. For John, his two primary goals are reaching Deepgate and finding Carnival… In the second segment Alan takes us to Hell where King Menoa and Hasp, youngest of Ayen’s seven sons and Lord of the First Citadel, are fighting for Dill’s soul. Also involved in this subplot are Mina Greene—a thaumaturgist who was first introduced in the novella “Lye Street”—and Alice Harper, one of the new character POVs. Finally, the last segment takes place in Pandemeria and concerns a diplomatic mission securing a new peace treaty between King Menoa and Rys, the god of flowers and knives. In this segment expect convergences, Victorian steampunk, a mystery, thaumaturgy, murder, betrayal, war and a wicked cliffhanger…

As a whole, I just thought the story rocked! The prologue was superb, the mythology fascinating, the conflicts epic and compelling, the villains were larger-than-life, the narrative was unpredictable, the action cinematic (and gory), and the climax was breathtaking promising one hell of a battle in the third and final chapter of The Deepgate Codex :) In short, Alan Campbell just does a much better job with the plotting in “Iron Angel” than he did in his debut. In fact, Alan’s overall performance is much better including stronger prose and more consistent characterization, all of which really complements the author’s already impressive descriptive and creative gifts. Plus, taking a page out of his “Lye Street” novella, there’s a bit more humor in the book—thanks to John Anchor, Mina Greene, the Soft Men and the White Swords—which I really appreciated :)

That all said, the book still has some room for improvement starting with the characterization which remains a bit shallow, while some of the narrative choices were questionable like the forgettable Alice Harper; writing from the viewpoint of the cutthroat Jack Caulker instead of John Anchor who would have been much more interesting; and characters being underrepresented or disappearing for long stretches. There were also a few pacing problems in the third segment particularly with the train sequence, and times when Alan really leaves the reader hanging, like wondering what happened to Carnival after her confrontation with John Anchor. While these are all issues that the author can work on improving, none of them really detract from the novel’s enjoyment. Sure, improvements in these areas would definitely enrich the book, but you have to understand that “Iron Angel”—and The Deepgate Codex in general—is more about the setting and the ambiance and offering escapism than it is deep characterization or stimulating moral examinations. So at times it may feel like you’re reading a comic book, or playing a videogame, or even watching a cartoon/anime, but that’s all part of the novel’s appeal and I for one wouldn’t want to change that.

In the end, Alan Campbell takes everything that was great about “Scar Night”—the concept, the unforgettable milieu, the evocative atmosphere—and makes it all bigger & better, while fixing most of the problems that plagued the debut. The end result is a huge improvement over “Scar Night” and just an incredible urban/gothic fantasy that will be hard to top…


ThRiNiDiR said...

I wasn't really intending to read "scar night" due to the various lackluster ratings it got...but you made me to reconsider my initial resistance. kudos for the review.

reanimated said...

Hi Robert,

Great review and interview with Campbell. I recently purchased SCAR NIGHT in pb and mean to get to it soon with the impending release of IRON ANGEL. I'm pretty eager.

Take care and say hi to the fam for me! : )

David said...

Hey - that's good news to hear it's better than the first one. Am looking forward to getting my hands on a copy.

Robert said...

Well, 'Scar Night' is the kind of book that I would borrow from the library or a friend, but 'Iron Angel' is a book that I would definitely buy in hardcover :) So I'd give 'Scar Night' a chance, but if the setting, concept and characters don't do it for, then you probably won't enjoy the sequel...

Reanimated, thanks! I hope you enjoy 'Scar Night' and I'll be sure to let my family know you said hello :)

David, I assume you'll be reviewing the book once you get a copy, so I'll be sure to look for that on your blog!

daydream said...

Oh that would be so amazing to have and read. Victorian Steampunk, ultra hyper cool mythology. I am so enthralled. Incredible review to make me love it even more.

Anonymous said...

Pretty awesome book....havent read part 2 or 3 yet....

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