Scar Night (Deepgate Codex)
by Alan Campbell
Review by John Berlyne
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1405090359
Date: 07 July, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Scar Night is an impressive debut fantasy by Scottish author Alan Campbell and publisher Tor UK are touting it as one of their major releases of the year. Their smart limited edition proof copies and sturdy hardcover release all count towards giving us the impression that this is a classy novel. And so it proves on reading!
Scar Night is no fluffy fantasy of unicorns and elves – rather it sits squarely in the dark, Gothic part of the genre, a place epitomised by the novels of Mervyn Peake and in recent years, China Mieville – indeed in terms of character and tone, Scar Night owes much to the works of these two authors.
The city of Deepgate hangs suspended over an abyss. Huge chains hold it in place and the city's inhabitants are schooled in the belief that below them in the darkness lives the "Horder of Souls", the God Ulcis. The dead of Deepgate are tossed into the darkness and the Church upholds these beliefs via long established traditions and rituals. This city itself is, for the most part, a dilapidated ruin, all turrets and dark alleyways, industrial smog-filled neighbourhoods and threatening shadowy corners. There's a atmosphere of decay pervading this setting, one superbly invoked by Campbell throughout, and there is also an ever-present edge to the novel, a thrilling and sickening feeling of impending violence. This manifests itself on Scar Night - when the angel/demon Carnival comes out to feed, just as she has done for three thousand years. On that night, the wise lock their doors and keep their heads down.
In a centre of the city lies the Temple, a labyrinth of towers, gloomy cloisters and dirty stonework. In a one room cell atop a crumbling spire lives Dill, the last of the archons, a weak winged stripling born into service and schooled by Presbyter Sypes, the Temple's most senior inhabitant, and a shambling, shuffling, mumbling wreck of a man. The blind leading the blind.
Dill is now of an age to fully take on his assigned duties as archon, and so Sypes places him in the care of Rachel Hael, an assassin and member of the Spine, a wing of the church trained specifically to hunt Carnival down. Rachel is hard, but approachable and she has herself resisted the final part of her own Spine training – the part where she allows her personality to be completely overwhelmed by her duty. Only her high-born status as daughter of one of Deepgate's military heroes has allowed her to preserve herself thus.
To this cast of characters, Campbell adds his main antagonist – the Poisoner Devon. Sanctioned by the church to develop ever more destructive and devastating ways to kill the enemies of the State, Devon has been concentrating on a project of his own. The Temple scriptures tell of a method of refining a substance called anglewine, a concoction that can bestow immortality on whoever ingests it. Devon, a chemist by vocation sets about creating this elixir and he has no compunction when it comes to gathering one of the main ingredients – human souls.
And so from this brief synopsis, you can tell already that Campbell's story is a dense and involved one. At the start, it is largely impenetrable, for Campbell does not pander to his readers by explaining every last thing. Instead, the plot is laid out by inference, the story driven by its setting rather than the events that are happening there. Motives are hidden from us, reasons obscured, but the effect is to rouse our curiosity, to read further about these fascinating people and this darkly exotic place in which they live.
Though Campbell's chained city is a brilliant and richly imagined creation, this reticence of the author's to explain does have a negative effect on the reader, for it creates more questions than answers in our minds, and this interrupts our ability to suspend disbelief. The concept only works if you don't think about it too much. Do not, for example, question what the huge chains that suspend Deepgate might be attached to? Or how such a city may have created in the first place? Or how the huge airships employed by the military and by traders negotiate their way through these chains? It's best not to concentrate on such matters, though they do nag as one reads.
For all the questions it poses for the reader, Scar Night is a hugely powerful and remarkable piece. For the first hundred pages or so, it smoulders - the epitome of the slow burn, but when the fire catches, it does so with such a vigorous intensity that this novel burns white hot. It is a furnace of actions and events that tumble into each other and the execution marks Alan Campbell out as a real powerhouse author. Scar Night builds to a climactic symphony of such catastrophic destruction that one can only wonder how the author can top matters in the next volume of The Deepgate Codex.