Alan Campbell’s Scar Night is the first book in a proposed trilogy (Deepgate Codex) and it’s a decent and intriguing start, though one hopes that succeeding books do a much better job of realizing the potential in the backstory than Scar Night itself does.
The strengths of the book mostly lie in its background. One is the underlying mythos: a millennia-ago war in heaven, a god who waits in the abyss below a major city as they feed him their dead (along with the dead’s souls) so he can create another army to storm heaven, a race of angels, a powerful church, a once-powerful group of heathens. Another strength is the setting — the city of Deepgate, suspended by massive chains over the god’s abyss, chains that wind through the entire city, holding up houses and blocks (or sometimes not, as the chains are known to deteriorate). The character types, while somewhat familiar to fantasy fans, are also a solid plus: the assassin pained by her skill at death, a creature pained by its need to feed on humans to sustain itself, a head priest whose faith isn’t as solid as it seems, the assistant who never knows enough. These are joined by two relatively original creations: Dill, the boy-angel who longs to match the stature of his ancestors who were great battle-archons that protected the city; and Devon, the master poisoner who is unlikeable in so many ways but also charmingly compelling.
All of these strengths bring Scar Night to an average, solidly enjoyable read. But the book’s weaknesses keep it from breaking beyond average and sometimes strongly disappoint the reader. For one, little of the background strengths are realized to their potential. The city could have been much more of a character in the story and while there are some nicely done passages in this vein, it just wasn’t enough. One doesn’t “feel” the city as one does say, in Mieville’s New Crobuzon or VanDermeer’s Ambergris. And the characters aren’t fully fleshed out either, just like the city. Carnival, the vampire-like angel who needs to feed on “Scar Night” to maintain her seeming immortality comes closest (she reminds me, in paler fashion, of C.S. Friedman’s Gerald Terrant in her Coldfire Trilogy) though we don’t see enough of her through most of the book. The assassin, Rachel, deepens somewhat but only past the halfway point, and Devon is pretty solid all the way through, but in a pretty mechanistic sense as he is mostly driven by revenge. But the others vary greatly in their fullness of presentation. Dill, sadly enough, is merely a pale shadow for just about all of the book. Mr. Nettle is a strong character, but single-minded so that lessens his impact somewhat.
The plot, similarly, has lots of potential, but fails to fully achieve it. Sometimes events seem a bit arbitrary, happening as they do only for the plot’s sake and not naturally due to character. Some events are simply too rushed, or feel very anticlimactic, such as almost all the experience with the god of the story. Battles, whether minor or major, are handled a bit perfunctorily, with little tension or excitement. And the look ahead to the next book is far too abrupt. There is also too much vagueness surrounding some of the mythology, especially as we get a closer view of its reality. By that, I don’t mean that there are questions to be answered by future books but points that should have been clarified for the purposes of this book (don’t want to give away plot points, so excuse my own vagueness on this point).
In the end, a solid three sort of book. The kind of opening book where I’ll read the second book (Iron Angel), but rather than buy the hardcover version of it as soon as it comes out (a sign of strong interest), I’ll get it out of the library. And decide then if it’s worth continuing the series. A mild recommendation due to its potential, with hopes that further books do a much better job of achieving its potential.