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The Art of Hunting by Alan Campbell

Book Two of The Gravedigger Chronicles. Tor, 2013, 433 p

The Art of Hunting cover

This retains many of the characters from Campbell’s previous novel in this series, Sea of Ghosts. The only Gravedigger left, though, is Colonel Granger, now more or less in the thrall of a replicating sword which produces copies of Granger to enhance his fighting powers. This takeover by the sword has the consequence that he dies in the novel (twice over) but he is still nevertheless a participating agent in the story at the novel’s end. This is, then, a fantasy after all. Other familiar names are Ianthe (Granger’s daughter,) Briana Marks and Ethan Maskelyne. Ianthe is now engaged to the Unmer Prince Paulus Marquetta, who may have wooed her merely to earn her protection. She was the power whereby the Unmer defeated their enemies the Haurstaf in Book One.

Various plot strands thread the novel. Marquetta is on a quest to recover the lost Unmer throne of Losoto, Granger to throw off the sword’s influence, Maskelyne to uncover a mysterious Unmer artefact and there is the entropath (an “elder god”) Fiorel’s wish to revenge himself on Argusto Conquillas who killed his daughter Duna in the prologue. These all come together at the climax with a sort of tournament of sorcery. In addition we find out the true nature of Granger’s, and so also Ianthe’s, lineage.

Along the way we have some philosophical aperçus. Of a particularly hideous bodily alteration:- “The human mind can come to accept even the most grievous change.” Then, “If every cell and every drop of blood … in your body had been replaced. Every memory. Would you know?”

The issues of proof reading which I noted in Sea of Ghosts were mostly absent here, thankfully. The first did not come till page 224 “He wondering” has a “was” missing, then (on page 225!) “When the reached the lamp.” Campbell does, though, make the common attribution of maw as mouth rather than stomach (which I suppose we’ll have to accept as the new orthodoxy as it appears as the first definition in dictionary.com) and there is a single misuse of “whom”.

The author’s powers of description are as prodigious as ever but as the second in a (presumed) trilogy The Art of Hunting does have a slight sense of marking time. In particular it lacks a firm conclusion. But there has to be something to make readers wish for a third volume. More of the engaging character of, Siselo, Conquillas’s young daughter would be a good thing.

Fantasy is not really my thing, but Campbell can write.

Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2011, 431p.

 Sea of Ghosts cover

On a world where a race known as the Unmer was vanquished decades ago their artefacts still haunt the human inhabitants. Much-valued Unmer “trove”€ is scattered randomly over the sea-bed and material called brine, poisonous to humans, is emanating from ichusae, or sea bottles, and making the sea level rise slowly but inexorably. Protective clothing must be worn if there is danger of contact with brine as humans develop “€œsharkskin”€ on any exposed surfaces, which leads to pain and death. Those fully immersed, however, still carry on a life as “€œthe Drowned,”€ swimming about freely under the brine, but are feared and persecuted by the authorities.

Telepaths known as Haurstaf helped defeat the Unmer and act as a kind of secret service (or, since they act for both sides in conflicts, more like an inquisition.)

This is a fantasy world with a difference. Yes there are dragons and slaves, but while the political structure is still monarchical (Emperor Hu) there are guns – and boats with engines. Refreshingly not the usual mediæval milieu, then.

In addition the Unmer trove has a technological basis. A rationale is given for the otherwise magical overflowing of brine from unstoppered ichusae and for the properties of Unmer artefacts. One of the characters knows about the wave-particle duality of light and muses on gravitation. These aspects of the novel make it Science Fiction rather than Fantasy. In feel, however, it leans more towards the fantastical.

In the prologue one of the so-called Gravediggers of the subtitle, Colonel Thomas Granger, offends Emperor Hu and they have to spirit themselves away to the city of Ethugra to escape his ire. The novel proper starts when an enslaved woman recognises Granger as the man she had a relationship with years before and pleads with him to save herself and her daughter, Ianthe, whom Granger surmises to be his child too, by buying them. Ianthe turns out to have powers to find trove, powers which will interest the Haurstaf and the local Mr Big, Ethan Maskelyne.

The novel sometimes has aspects of a quest story, at others of the military insert and retrieve mission. Pleasingly, very few of the characters are mere ciphers (though Emperor Hu is something of a caricature of the spoilt aristocratic brat.) Campbell knows how to draw a reader in to his story and to keep the attention.

Unfortunately, at the production level, the text is ill-served by having words – frequently “€œthe”€ or “a” – missing or repeated and other typographical errata of various sorts. Another example of the tendency of publishers to look on their publications simply as “€œproduct” and wheel them out without due care.

Novels are not product. At least, the good ones aren’€™t.

Rant over.

Sea of Ghosts is a superior fantasy, well worth a read. The paperback is now available.

God Of Clocks by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2009. 373p

God Of Clocks cover

The usual caveat applies to this review.

This is an unusual one. It is nominally a fantasy yet about two thirds of the way through we suddenly encounter time travel and temporal paradoxes, which was in retrospect quite elegantly foreshadowed, and it begins to resemble more a work of SF. That was the point that the book, for me, sparked to life. Up to then it had been a (I hesitate to say typical, as Campbell’s skill as a writer elevates it above the norm) fantasy and consequently I found it difficult to engage with. And the solution one of the characters adopts to the deleterious consequences of her previous choices on the timeline she has thereby created is well out of the ordinary, not to say drastic.

Far from it merely happening there is also a rationale – a mechanism, no less – given for the ability to travel in time. The God of Clocks for whom the book is named inhabits a building where clocks abound and rooms with portals to other times open and close on their unwinding.

Certain characters from the two previous Deepgate Codex books reappear – Dill, Rachel Hael, John Anchor and also the angel, Carnival. The vision which illuminated the first, Scar Night, though, of the city Deepgate suspended on huge chains over a chasm, has been missing in the latter books, which suffer as a consequence since the setting lies closer to the default mediaeval of the general run of fantasy. There is also too much murder and mayhem for my tastes but this is evidently what aficionados of the form appreciate.

In God Of Clocks there is a quest, of sorts. So far, so fantasy. Yet at its end the status quo ante is not restored – or only in (small) part. This too is more characteristic of SF than of the standard fantasy novel. Is it possible that Campbell secretly yearns to be a writer of SF? Whatever, he is certainly twisting the tropes of fantasy in new directions.

(The book blurb states he lives in south Lancashire. I think that, just perhaps, might be south Lanarkshire.)

Iron Angel by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2009, 435p

See my review of Campbell’s Scar Night for the usual caveat.

This is volume 2 of The Deepgate Codex and features characters from that book – some of whom are dead. It is in three parts which at first seem totally unrelated but do begin to interweave.

There are some startling images within its pages. A giant skyship pulled along on a rope tether by a man named John Anchor. The Iron Angel of the title, a vast mechanical construct driven by the soul of one of the characters (inspired perhaps by the Angel Of The North?) A hell where characters inhabit themselves – embodied as walls, floor and ceiling.

It was here I began to lose interest a little as the characters could manipulate “reality” at will and generate objects out of thin air. This is one of my quibbles with utter fantasy. When anything is possible how much actually has any meaning? And what jeopardy is present when people are already dead? (OK, there is, perhaps, eternal torment to avoid but is this sufficient to carry us through?) Hence my preference for SF.

The Deepgate of Scar Night, while refreshingly post-mediæval, was pre-mass industrial; yet here we have battleships, locomotives and steamboats. We also have the intrusion of a plethora of gods and their adherents. The more focused vision of Scar Night has become somewhat diffused.

What made that earlier book so memorable and distinctive was the city of Deepgate itself, a gloomy, brooding presence, hanging over an abyss from a network of chains, and the complex interactions of the characters who lived there. Since, towards the end of Scar Night, most of Deepgate fell into the chasm over which it was suspended we no longer have that unique vision to bolster the narrative. A whiff of contractual obligation hangs over proceedings.

Yet Campbell can write. Some of his descriptions are excellent and he has an eye/ear for portraying character with subtlety and a few telling phrases.

Personally I’d have liked him to try his hand at another scenario but I suspect the commercial imperative to follow Scar Night with something similar in order to please its fans weighed too heavily in the construction of Iron Angel. And, disappointingly, despite a climactic battle, this novel is not truly rounded off. The ending here is something of a cliffhanger, probably to set up the third Deepgate Codex volume God Of Clocks. (Which does have an excellent prologue. It’s printed at the back of this edition; a practice by publishers which is rather naff. I read it earlier – as a writers’ group submission. On the basis of that alone I will read God Of Clocks.)

Writers’ Group Publications

Two fellow members of the East Coast Writers’ Group have had books published recently.

Alan Campbell’s third novel, God Of Clocks, has garnered some good reviews, notably these ones in Strange Horizons and Scotland On Sunday.

I reviewed his first novel Scar Night, here.

Poet Jane McKie’s second collection is called The Sun Is Green. Her first, Morocco Rococo, won an award for best first book.

Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Tor, 2006

Scar Night

Disclaimer. Alan Campbell belongs to the same writers’ group as I do, so you may wish to discount what follows. Nevertheless, I only saw very small parts of this book before it was published and none of it in its published form. Apologies to Alan for taking so long to get round to actually reading the finished novel but it’s another 500+ pager and time is short. I will refer to him as Campbell throughout as in a normal review.

In the city of Deepgate, someone is going about murdering people, draining them of their blood and hence their souls. Moreover, it is not the usual culprit, Carnival, who normally takes just the one victim and then only on Scar Night. The perpetrator is trying to produce angelwine, a forbidden concoction that confers resistance to wounds and, perhaps, death.

Deepgate itself is an impressive creation. It is held together by chains and is suspended over an abyss at the bottom of which a god is believed to wait to collect the blood and souls of the departed.
Because he wants to convince us of the reality of his setting, Campbell has a tendency to overdescribe at times, even if lovingly, but this is of course probably what the intended reader will most like about the book.
A minor caveat is that there is sometimes an overtone of default mediaevality about the city, especially in the importance of the church and the degree of technology, though, refreshingly, there are airships.

As you would expect from a first novel there are some infelicities scattered throughout and there can be problems with pacing but Campbell has created believable characters – Dill, Mr Nettle, Presbyter Sypes, Rachel Hael, Fogwill Crumb, the poisoner Devon – and even the minor ones all behave the way real people would in their circumstances.
However, when the inevitable happens and some of the characters descend into the abyss and others move on to the plains surrounding Deepgate the emphasis on character becomes lost and action begins to predominate. This may have been necessary but I felt it was to the novel’s detriment overall.

Campbell is at his most convincing in the earlier part of the book, depicting the city, its inhabitants and their daily lives. He may have created a rod for his own back here if his fans develop obsessive tendencies.
However, the build up to the climax is, to my mind, too rushed. (There may perhaps have been a touch of rapidly approaching publisher’s deadline about it.)
And the title is a bit askew. We experience two Scar Nights during the book’s course not just one.

Further disclaimer. A fantastical tale of this sort is not my usual preferred reading.
But there is enough good writing here to make me want to read the sequel Iron Angel.

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