I thought Scar Night, the first book in Alan Campbell’s Deepgate Codex, never really reached its potential in terms of story, character, or richness of imagination and detail. It had enough to keep my interest piqued in the series, but I can’t say I was holding my breath for book two.
Iron Angel picks up slightly after the events of Scar Night and continues the major story arc. A long-ago war in Heaven ended up with Heaven sealed, the god Iril shattered into pieces (which retain power) in the Maze of Hell, and his sons scattered and imprisoned, though most managed to free themselves and plot a return to heaven. Meanwhile, they must deal with King Menoa of Hell, who is attempting to lead his Mesmerists out of Hell into this world. Iron Angel opens with one of Iril’s sons, Cospinol joined by his brothers on his great skyship of the dead (his prison), pulled (yes, pulled) by John Anchor, a great character. Cospinol is told by his brother Rhys that he’s needed to stop Menoa by sealing the portal to Hell under Deepgate, which is where he’ll also find the mad demigod/angel Carnival whom he can kill and then “drink” to attain enough power to free himself. From there the book goes into multiple strands:
In part 1, the young angel Dill and his companion, the Spine assassin Rachael, are hiding out from the Spine-declared martial law. They become separated and Rachael leaves Deepgate with Dill’s possessed body (his soul is in hell), eventually meeting up with Carnival. Also in part 1, John Anchor, pulling the huge skyship behind him, seeking Carnival, joins up with Jack Caulker, a thief looking out for himself.
Part 2 takes place in the Maze of Hell and also follows two strands. One focus is on Dill, whose soul, upon his body’s possession, was transferred to Hell. Here he is prime prey for Menoa so he must avoid capture, helped by Hasp, another of Iril’s sons, and Mina Greene, a thaumaturge. The other focus is Alice Harper, a human who traveled to Hell for reasons of her own and is now working for Menoa.
Part 3 takes place in the land of Pandemeria (much of it on a train actually), and we see many of the same characters here in this section, although many are greatly transformed, some physically, some emotionally, some motivationally. We also get a big battle scene here.
So how does Iron Angel measure up to its so-so precursor? In many ways, Iron Angel is exponentially better, so much so that were it not for the obviousness of the continued plot and characters, I would have never have guessed this was the same author. First, the richness of imagination that was hinted at but not fully realized in Scar Night is all here: a poisonous forest, an odd little dog, the Soft Men, The White and Black Swords, mixes of magic and technology, strange forms, shapeshifting. Hell is especially vivid and original. Here nothing is permanent — it’s all a matter of will, and so things can be changed at will (Menoa, for instance, transforms Harper into whatever form best suits his purpose). Also, the walls, houses, etc. are made up of the souls of those in hell and one’s souls take the forms of rooms or, in the case say of Hasp, entire castles (making for a highly original battle scene in Hell).
Beyond the vivid setting, Hell is also without a doubt the best part of the book — the most taut and compelling writing, the most moving. Part 1 is solid if a bit slow to start. And the scenes with Rachael get better toward the end — more interesting and humorous if not more compelling. The humor flares up especially nicely in Part 3 and the book closes well with a strong ending, though fair warning — it’s a kicker of a cliffhanger.
Eventually some of Campbell’s flaws from Scar Night reasserted themselves. Pacing becomes an issue in Part 3 — the whole first half feels unnecessarily long. Campbell presents us with some wonderful characters — especially Anchor and Mina Greene (any scene with Anchor is a winner); They’re great characters for whimsy, dialogue, and action, but we don’t know much about them. Other characters are weaker — Rachael, Dill, Harper, Menoa — none of them really come alive or compel any emotional tie, for good or bad.
But while I would have wished for stronger characterization more consistently, the flaws were really drowned out by the sheer originality of the scenes in Hell and the book was a vast improvement on Scar Night. Book Three, God of Clocks, is not as good, so we end up with that rarity in the fantasy trilogy world — a second or “bridge” book that is the best of the three (shades of Empire Strikes Back — though God of Clocks is nowhere near as bad as Return of the Jedi — no damn Ewoks for one). But based on the solid Scar Night, the very strong Iron Angel, and the bit of a letdown though still decent God of Clocks, the Deepgate Trilogy is a recommended read. It has many flaws, but there are enough good moments to earn it a read, even if it shouldn’t go to the top of your TBR list.