A Tale of Two Women
By Cheryl Morgan
The city of Deepgate hangs over the abyss, literally. The city itself is suspended on chains, hundreds of them. Beneath it is a hole, seemingly bottomless, that is the abode of the god Ulcis. Expelled from Heaven, he lurks at the bottom of the pit collecting the souls of the dead into a vast army with which he intends to reclaim his place on high. To be included in this army is the greatest honor that can befall a citizen of Deepgate. All you have to do is die, and make sure that the bulk of your blood is still in your body when you are cast into the pit. The blood, you must understand, is the place where the soul resides.
The book, Scar Night by Alan Campbell, is the latest novel to be thrown into the ring as a contender for the latest and greatest piece of dark fantasy. The cover, although by Dominic Harman, recalls the turrets of New Crobuzon on Edward Millerís cover for Perdido Street Station. The blurb sent to reviewers includes an "in the best tradition of Gormenghast" comment. Yes, there is hype. But at the same time, books donít get hyped by accident.
Every fictional city takes some of its character from real world locations with which the author is familiar. Jeff VanderMeer has written about how Ambergris reflects the fecundity of his Florida home, where vegetation will take over barren ground seemingly overnight, and dangerous animals lurk in the waterways. New Crobuzon is, of course, a close cousin of London. Alan Campbell lives in Edinburgh, and consequently his fantasy city has more of a Scottish feel. There is a certain air of grimness to it. Where New Crobuzon is ruled by corrupt politicians and crime lords, Deepgate is ruled by sour-faced clergymen. There are no posy Socialist intellectuals in Deepgate. If revolution were ever plotted there, which it probably isnít, it would be by hard-muscled, uneducated men just released from a long dayís work in the foundries.
But, as I said, it probably isnít. What is the point of rebelling against the Church when God lurks under your feet? Everyone knows that Ulcis, the fallen angel, is real. Angels are real. Two of them live in the city.
"I suppose you donít trust Carnival either."
"Damn right. Something unnatural about her."
A smile found its way to Fogwillís lips. "You think thereís something unnatural about an immortal, scar-ravaged, blood-sucking angel who steals souls during the night of moondark? Whatever could be unnatural about that?"
The other angel is Dill, and he is the hero of our tale. Carnival, you see, is a renegade, and angel who doesnít follow Church orders but instead lives forever thanks to the blood (and therefore souls) that she steals. Citizens who die at Carnivalís hands (or rather teeth) cannot have their souls given to Ulcis. That alone is enough to make her a heretic. Young Dill is a loyal servant of the Church, the last living descendant of the angel army that fell into the Abyss with Ulcis. As is traditional with the young heroes of multi-volume fantasy works (and I should warn you that Scar Night is merely volume one of The Deepgate Codex), he is terribly naïve and has no idea how to use what powers he has. Why, to make sure nothing bad ever happens to him, the priests have forbidden him to learn to fly.
By now you should be starting to see a plot peeking shyly from the layers of world building. The city is in decay. Only one angel left, and he a callow, ineffectual youth. Deepgate does have enemies ó the savage Heshette who live in the barren Deadsands beyond the edge of the Abyss. The city survives mainly thanks to its massively superior technology (airships!) and to the unceasing efforts of the Chief Poisoner, Alexander Devon, to develop new and more horrific chemical weapons that can be dropped on the hapless Heschette from on high. Devon, unlike most of the people of Deepgate, doesnít care about religion. He is a scientist, albeit a rather unhinged one.
Devon detested any deference to the supernatural. Were supernatural forces not simply natural forces yet to be explained? Blood contained energy which could be harvested to extend life. Gods, demons, devils and ghosts did not come into it. Everything had to be defined in terms Devon could comprehend. For a man of his brilliance, this was vital.
Enough. Youíll be starting to see elements of the plot. And one thing that Campbell does very well is be parsimonious with information. The details of his world are released slowly, trickle by trickle, so that the reader is kept hooked as much by the desire to find out what the world is all about as she is by the plot. And, I am pleased to say, it is by no means all revealed by the end of the book. These multi-volume works need more than just a plot to keep people reading, especially as the endings tend to be so predictable.
Campbell does other things well too. You may have noticed a little wry humor in the quotes above. This holds even during the greatest possible disaster that Deepgate knows ó the breaking of a major structural chain.
The Adjunct picked himself up, dusted himself down, and looked back.
Crossopís warehouse was gone. Half a block of the Depression was gone. Where moments ago there had been factories and foundries, there was nothing but a vast hole, veiled in dust and smoke.
Clay grunted. "There goes the neighbourhood."
Ultimately, however, Scar Night does not appear to be about any of these things. Dill might be presented as the center of attention, but for the first book at least all of the fascination lies with two women. The first is Carnival. She is over 2000 years old. She has killed at least once a month in that time, for only by stealing the souls of others can she stay alive. Her body is a mass of scars, but such a fearsome fighter is she that it is doubtful that many were inflicted by the Spine, the deadly assassins that the Church sends after her. Carnivalís scars come from another source entirely.
The other woman is Rachel Hael, a Spine agent assigned to (rather belatedly) teach Dill about the real world. These days Rachelís main job is hunting Carnival, but that is only possible at moondark, Scar Night, when the renegade angel comes out to feed. That frees the rest of the month for Dill. Before all this, howeverÖ
"Before the Spine gave me to the rooftops, I hunted Heshette spies and informers, sometimes mercenaries and pilgrims whoíd fled the city. In Hollowhill and Sandport and Shale Forest. I donít know how many ó it frightens me to remember. But I murdered them because I was afraid not to. Once you are part of the Spine, you obey or become a threat yourself."
Did I say that this book was grim? Maybe I should leave the last word to Devon.
"Life is nothing but degrees of pain and hunger. Why cling to such suffering? Like everyone else, are you not simply waiting to die?"
The answer to Devonís question lies, of course, at the bottom of the Abyss. And that, dear reader, is where our naïve young angel and his deadly mentor must travel to seek the truth.
Campbell is not a stylist like China Miéville or Hal Duncan. His prose is simple and approachable. People will, I think, admire his world building, but they wonít sit slack-jawed, or retch with disgust, at the way he writes. I donít see Scar Night causing the same sort of shock to the industry that Perdido Street Station or Vellum did. But his work is interesting, accessible, and pleasingly innovative in a field that is all too repetitive at times. Heíll do well.