SCAR NIGHTA novel by Alan Campbell
(2007, Bantam Spectra)
The Deepgate Codex, book 1
A young angel, last of a dying race, teams up with an assassin, as a master poisoner steals souls to turn him superhuman, and the religious prefect keeps the secret that his faith is built on something different from what the church has been teaching.
-- First reading (paperback)
The story was fairly undefined, though the detail was well-written. The author seemed to over-simplify some of the action and events, in order to give the story he wanted to tell, bypassing some of the consequences of the characters' actions in many places. This is not the normal kind of SF I read, a very urban feel with a melancholy view of the world. The book ends on a cliff-hanger, and it was good enough that I'll read the sequel.Spoiler review:
I had trouble with the beginning of this book, because it didn't hold my interest. The characters were introduced, and what they were doing was well-detailed, but I didn't find what they were doing to be interesting. We were getting to know Dill through his well-intentioned semi-captivity, but unfortunately, it was a little boring. I didn't really get a sense of who he was until he died, in the city of the abyss, Deep. I also didn't get a sense of Rachel- the Spine assassin- until she went down as well. And I never got the sense of Mr. Nettle, especially why he was called by such a formal name. Finally, I was quite surprised when two of the point of view characters died, especially given the knowledge they carried and the roles they played.
The faith of Deepgate, the city built on chains and suspended above the abyss, derives from the arrival of the angels, three thousand or more years prior. Callis, the lead angel, had a magnificent machine that could delve the ore from the strange mountain nearby, with which they built the city's foundation chains. Ulcis, whom nobody has met, claims to have been cast out of heaven by Ayen, who closed the gates and will not allow any more souls to enter. Ulcis claims to take the souls of the people who just died, every Scar Night (new moon), so the church is instructed to drain the bodies of blood, which contains their souls. He will use their souls in an army to reclaim heaven.
But Presbyter Sypes knows the truth. He has somehow half of Callis in a prison within the temple, a raving lunatic angel who wants to feed more and more on human blood. From the start, especially after the flashback to Callis' war, I suspected that the angels were alien beings. There is no proof by the end of the book, but I still think the angels fell to the ground in a spaceship of some kind, especially given the metallic nature of the abyss walls, as well as the giant meteorite mountain -and the technology of the Tooth cutter. So Sypes keeps Dill in the dark about much of his warrior role, doesn't allow him to fly, and discourages him from finding a girl with whom he could continue his species. Sypes was a peculiar character, always falling asleep, and the author hinted that he knew more than he let on. Unfortunately, his knowledge died with him before the book ended. I was expecting more of the character, especially given his particularities, and the running joke of not seeing any stonemasons in the temple, with work unfinished. I thought they might be plotting, but there is no word of them afterwards.
His second-in-command, Fogwill, goes behind his back, until he is shown the truth about his faith. When Sypes is kidnapped by Devon the poisoner, Fogwill mounts an impressive military excursion to go find him, even going along. He shows smarts in guessing that the airship was a decoy, and manages to alert the militia of Deepgate to mount a defense against the Tooth before his airship is destroyed, and he dies, too!
To complete this section of the novel, which admittedly was very much intertwined with Dill's story, we have Devon. He spends his life devising poisons for use in the wars against the primitive Heshette, and in the process, his body is dying; his wife already succumbed. But Sypes anonymously sent him a book outlining the procedure to produce angelwine, a concoction made up of the souls (full bodies of blood) of 13 people. Sypes almost went mad with guilt at condoning the murders of 13 people, but he was so worried about Ulcis attacking Deepgate that he thought he could buy the help of the only remaining adult angel left, Carnival.
Devon had mixed thoughts about bleeding so many people to death, also, but thinks the benefits outweigh the guilt. When he does take the angelwine and injects it into his body, he becomes almost unkillable. Even getting spears through his brain, heart and lungs, while painful, his body heals itself, recovering completely. As he does this, he kidnaps Sypes, and steals an airship, taking them to the Tooth, which he intends to use to cut all the chains holding Deepgate above the abyss.
It was unclear to me how long it took to get to the Tooth and the mountain (the book says around 8 hours), and more, how many days it took them to get back, driving across the sand dunes. It has to be more than a week, since that's how long Dill was apparently dead, but the time didn't seem to pass, and everything seemed too simple. Could siege engines and everything deployed against the Tooth be built and sent out across the dunes in that short time? I have doubts that anybody, even armed church soldiers, could motivate people that much, given the state of the city as we see it.
The city itself is supposed to be a character, its base built entirely from chains, with buildings wrapped in chains, and it even sags this way and that, depending on the movement of construction or large segments of the population. Occasionally, entire neighborhoods fall through the chains into the abyss below! It seems a ghastly place to live.
The temple angel, Dill, is a very naive character, but he has some endearing qualities, too. My favorite of them was his compassion for the snails that keep seeping into his room. I wondered if somehow they were souls of people come to him. If so, there was no revelation in this book. He is really a shy little thing, and he although he dreams of being in battle and flying, he never tries to sneak a flight, even to the point of having to take an elevator basket down from his room.
Rachel is a Spine, an expert assassin, whose family is all military. Her father just died in battle, and her brother Mark has become head of the airship division in his stead. She has never had her emotions purged, through the tempering process of the Spine, so she gets to feel plenty, most of it in anger.
Rachel has been hunting a rogue angel, Carnival, who has been on the loose for three thousand years. Carnival bleeds people every Scar Night for sustenance, so the Spine are particularly keen on capturing her. After Devon kidnaps Sypes, Dill is sent out to meet with Carnival, who agrees after the promise of angelwine. Unfortunately, the angelwine has fallen down into the abyss after Mr. Nettle cut Devon's hand off. Carnival races down to find it, Rachel jumps after her, certain that Dill will catch her.
The second part of the book takes place in the abyss, where Carnival and Rachel are overwhelmed by the reanimated dead and captured, and where Dill is killed by them. It's not clear if Mr. Nettle died and retained his soul, coming back to life, after falling into the abyss, or if he actually survived, which seems unlikely. He is, of course, searching for the soul of his daughter, contained in the angelwine, and who was killed by Devon in the process. I really wonder how much blood could be left in the syringe. Devon must have stashed the rest of it somewhere else, as there is no way the entire blood content of thirteen people could be contained by one syringe. It makes me wonder how Devon could move residences in one night with all that blood, too.
Regardless, Carnival and Rachel meet Ulcis, a giant monster of an angel, and Carnival finds out she is his daughter. Eventually, after a long chase through dark corridors, in which it seems highly unlikely that they could find their old cells again, Rachel brings Dill back to life with the angelwine in the syringe, and Carnival drinks the soul out of Ulcis, killing him -this was a big surprise!
As they make their way back to the surface, pieces of Deepgate rain down upon them. It seems much too tidy that as Ulcis' angels follow them in fury, a gigantic piece of the city crashes down upon them, dragging them back down to the bottom of the pit. I suppose it's still possible that they survived, but the way this author simplified such dynamics throughout the book, I doubt it. What happened to the army of the dead they met at the beginning? Was it marching up to the city?
Through Dill and Rachel's distractions, and the actions of the Hechette leader, Devon plummets down the abyss with the Tooth, and a portion of Deepgate has apparently survived. After injecting the angelwine, he heals incredibly fast, and he expects to survive the crash, as well, though it will be painful. Rachel stabbed him with an arrow saturated with an ancient disease, which will keep his healing powers at work, as well. It's not clear if he can survive that, but I suppose the next book will need a villain, as well.
It also seems that Dill remembers something of his time as a dead angel. Did he go to heaven for a week? I guess the next book will tell.
I had trouble classifying this book as SF or fantasy, because it has elements of both. There is too much technology, I think, for it to be a true fantasy, especially if, as I believe, the angels are actually aliens, or transformed humans. But with the demons that Mr. Nettle battled in the Maze, the proof of souls within human blood, and other elements like a possible god, it could be viewed as fantasy, as well. Moreover, it reads like a complex video game, and it was no surprise to see that the author was a video game designer. Solutions were too simple for anything else.
The descriptions were the most intensive part of this book, as the author goes into a lot of detail, obviously having developed this world as a gamer would. But he extends that to the culture, too, which is well understood, even though that, too, comes across as rather simple. I can't say that I really liked the characters, or even disliked them. It was an interesting read, but I can't fully recommend this book on its own.
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