Scar Night by Alan Campbell

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Scar Night by Alan Campbell

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Dark fantasy with hints at horror and s-f too, this debut conveys a superb industrial/gothic atmosphere, has an action-packed plot, rich, many-dimensional characters and a city to have nightmares of. Could be shorter, but what fantasy couldn't? Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 500 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 978-0330444767

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Goddess Ayen furious at the human wickedness shut down the gates of heaven and the souls of the dead are now forever roaming the bloody corridors of Hell. Ayen's son Ulcis rebelled and was cast down from the sky and now he dwells in the abyss gathering an army of souls and preparing to reclaim heaven for the faithful. Those inhabit Deepgate, a city suspended on chains over the abyss. All the dead of Deepgate are given to Ulcis. All, that is, apart from those who lost their blood and whose souls cannot thus be saved from Hell.

As often, though, things are not as they appear and unravelling the reality behind the myth is one of the strong plotlines of The Scar Night. Is the god just a lie of the priests who want to maintain their power? But then - what about angels? After all, a descendant of the Battle Archons of old is now alive in one of the Temple's spires, having just turned sixteen and not particularly mighty or awe inspiring but still winged and carrying the heritage of the long line of Ulcis' Heralds. And there is another one, a renegade that has been roaming the rooftops of Deepgate for two thousand years, drinking one soul every Scar Night. And what about angelwine, an elixir distilled from blood, containing essence of souls and capable of giving one a virtual immortality - and madness? Who - and what - is, actually, living at the bottom of the abyss?

We explore Deepgate's world through several characters - most of them ranging from repulsive to evil to terrifying to grotesque. There is Presbyter Sypes, a priest maintaining the lie in order to protect the city. There is Devon, the Chief Poisoner, a sadistic chemist maddened by pain and grief, reaching for god-like status with a supreme arrogance of a scientist. Certain Mr Nettle, a lout hell-bent on reclaiming his killed daughter's soul. Rachel, a temple assassin, assigned to protect the innocent Temple angel, Dill; and her reluctant charge himself. The last two are the most human and most likely to provide the hook for the reader, so important when reading books like that, but all the playing characters - even the renegade psychopathic angel - are drawn with excellent depth and richness.

The city of Deepgate itself is a character, too, and perhaps the most compelling one. It unravels itself in front of us with great confidence, the exposition is completely natural, without breaking the structure of the novel at all. Alive but somehow decaying, swaying on its powerful foundation chains, centred on the mighty Temple, surrounded by hostile tribesmen whom it fights with poison gas, biological weapons and fire but always looking to the abyss and the Hoarder of Souls in there an entire culture waiting to die, eager to be consumed by the darkness beneath their feet. It's all rather dark and gothic, with echoes of Peake'sThe Gormenghast Trilogy, vampire stories, Clive Baker, even Lovecraft and at a stretch, somehow, Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The mood is realised brilliantly, without overtly florid description, it comes from glimpses of images, smells, peoples' sayings; and by the choice of language too, from names to adjectives to chapter titles.

Deepgate is dark, foreboding, industrial city belching smoke and fighting its enemies with plague, poison and fire, but also morally corrupt through what lies at its foundation. Redemption is hinted at, but so far only very vaguely hinted: I suspect there is room for that in the later volumes of the Deepgate Codex. Campbell takes his idea to its logical conclusion by showing how core beliefs of a culture would shape the way it conducted all kinds of tasks, from technology to war. Some of it is pretty stomach churning, but not particularly gratuitous. The reader winces, but accepts that that's how things must be in that city of chains. I don't like horror, and thus I didn't like the moments when the "dark fantasy" mode risked turning into the horror, but overall it stayed this side of the genre divide.

There is action aplenty in The Scar Night, the story starts to unfold rather slowly - the first 100 or so pages, in fact the whole first section (entitled, quite meaningfully, Lies) sets the scene. It's long, but enough mysteries and secrets are hinted at to have the reader hooked and then the narration gathers momentum and things start happening faster and louder in a veritable crescendo towards the end when the suspense is as taut as Deepgate's foundation chains, and the apocalyptic dénouement makes one truly wonder how the next instalment can try - and will it manage - to best it.

Campbell writes confident prose, with decent dialogue and great pacing, managing to maintain suspense throughout and keep the reader reading. Despite gothic imagery, there is none of the gothic overblown language.

As common and unfortunate with fantasy, The Scar Night is very long - too long, especially as more volumes are coming. The exposition could be shortened, some other parts pared down a bit, but overall it's saved by the reader being given chance to strike a relationship with one or two characters that are just about likeable at first and then develop into true heroes we can root for throughout. I found The Scar Night a compelling if not always a strictly enjoyable read and will probably have to read the other instalments as I am left in the final cliff-hanger, and that one not to do with action, but with the unravelling of the world - much worse!

The Scar Night is a very promising debut and should make waves in the world of fantasy. Those fond of steam-punk and other dark visions of decay, corruption and blood-letting should particularly enjoy it, but most fantasy readers will likely approve, and those from the bordering genres but wary of sword and sorcery can venture in in full confidence that they will not encounter any elves, dwarves or wizards. Highly recommended.

Big thanks to the good people at Tor who sent this book to TheBookBag.

Another dark fantasy we liked is The Iron Dragon's Daughter. Those in a mood for a less bloody and more traditional doorstopper of a sword & sorcery might enjoy The Innocent Mage.

Booklists.jpg Scar Night by Alan Campbell is in the Bookbag's Fantasy Picks.

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lechateau1962 said:

Fromyour review definately one to look out for!

Lucy Beadle said:

I did enjoy Scar Night, I loved the constant impression of overwhelming darkness and oppression with the strong sense of something lurking in the deeps just waiting to emerge and was more than happy to buy the next in the series Iron Angel. Alan Campbell does show us some new flavours in the world of fantasy stepping away from the more tired tradition of swords n sorcery, the idea of fallen angels, hidden demons and misguided ecclesiastical politics is a sweet combination. However and there's a big however the book can get tied down in places, the start was slooooooow I'm glad I persevered with it as it was a worthy read but I can guarantee that there are many out there who will drop the book early because it doesn't grip right from the very start (which lets face it is an essential ingredient for literary addicts!) I'd give this 3 stars out of 5 and would have given it more if it was faster paced.

Thanks Book Bag!

Lucy Beadle