by Alan Campbell
Cover Artist: Stephen Youll
Review by Drew Bittner
Spectra Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0553384163
Date: 26 December, 2006 List Price $22.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Scar Night by Alan Campbell was previously reviewed by our UK Editor John Berlyne in July 2006.
Scar Night is the dark of the moon, when Carnival the soul-thief prowls the streets of Deepgate and snatches away the life (and blood) of some poor unfortunate. Centuries of effort by the Church of Ulcis and their legion of assassins--the Spine--have failed to catch or kill her.
Scar Night is also the name of Alan Campbell's debut novel. Richly imagined and ingeniously plotted, the book marks the emergence of a new and exciting voice in fantasy.
Deepgate hangs suspended by myriad chains over a vast, miles-deep chasm, where dwells their god Ulcis. Cast out of heaven and biding his time by raising armies of undead, Ulcis lurks in the city of Deep, which none in Deepgate have ever seen. Ages past, at Ulcis's command, a troop of angels arose from the depths along with a monstrous white machine called the Tooth of God, all to help construct Deepgate... but time has reduced their ranks to one single and rather unimpressive specimen named Dill. Finally raised to act as the city's archon (which means presiding over the ritual sacrifice of the dead and their blood to Ulcis), Dill finds he is woefully unprepared to assume this important role.
Meanwhile, a scrounger named Mr Nettle mourns the death of his daughter-- and schemes to make her murderer pay. At first assuming she was a victim of Carnival's, his brutal method of investigation leads him to Alexander Devon, the city's lead poisoner. (Situated amid bands of hostile Heshette tribesmen, the city in past decades has resorted to poisoning what are called the Deadsands, wreaking ecological devastation with poison and plague.) It seems that Devon has a secret of his own: he hopes to resurrect his dead wife (and perhaps save his own decaying flesh) by recreating the forbidden substance known as angelwine, and he needs the blood of thirteen humans to make it. Nettle's daughter was only one... and her soul lies trapped in that elixir.
Rachel Hael, trained by the Spine but not one of them, joins her colleagues in helping to trap Carnival, but soon realizes that she is the bait -- her fellow Spine left her to die, hoping Carnival would be destroyed with her. Unfortunately, despite a rather spectacular and incendiary deathtrap, Carnival survives... and wreaks vicious revenge when she wants to learn Rachel's identity.
Rachel and Dill meet when Rachel is assigned to train the young archon. She feels sorry for the young angel, who has been locked away and neglected for much of his life, despite the benevolence of his mentor (an ancient Church figurehead named Presbyter Sypes). She urges him to learn things on his own, such as how to fly, and doesn't stop pushing him to challenge his limitations. Her encouragement forms an important element in his growth later on.
There's an awful lot more to the story than this, but suffice it to say that these diverse characters come together under some unlikely circumstances. Dill and Carnival meet, some surprising origins (and goals) are revealed, and the city of Deepgate is rocked to its core. An expedition into the depths of Deep is launched by accident, while the Heshette rally around an improbable figure and his hate-soaked plans for revenge. All that and Mr Nettle has the chance to fight a god.
Campbell avoids myriad fantasy tropes with his first novel, inventing a fascinating location (a city hung by chains over a huge pit? brilliant!) peopled by driven, even desperate characters who have agendas and purposes entirely at odds with each other. Although the dialogue is not polished in places, the dark mood, almost Victorian mood and evocative descriptions carry the story forward nicely. There are deep secrets (no pun intended) that come to light and horrific implications of Deepgate's practices are exposed.
As said, there's a lot to this story and it is not fast, disposable reading; it demands time and attention. But if something new in the world of fantasy piques your interest, this book is for you.