The Waking Engine, by David Edison, continues my unfortunately long-running streak of books that fell short of their potential. As with many of them this past month or so, The Waking Engine has a great premise — people (defined very broadly) do not die just once; instead they do so multiple times, each time waking in a new body to a new life on another world, but with all their memories intact. Eventually, however, you’ll end up in one of a few places where True Death occurs. And one such place, the City Unspoken, is the setting for Edison’s novel, which opens (after a short prologue) with the main character, Cooper, awakening in the City after only his first death, a highly unusual occurrence.
Cooper arrives in the midst of a multi-pronged crisis. The dead have stopped Dying, the Prince and his the ruling aristocracy have sealed themselves inside the massive palace-dome, and the subsequent power vacuum has left the door open for ambitious sorts to try and take advantage and/or seize control. Among those who seek more power are a cabal of necromancers and their Death Boys/Charnel Girls, Cleopatra, an absent fey cyborg, and (separately) her sadistic fey daughter. Also thrown into the mix are Richard Nixon (in young boy form on this world), a foppish but possibly deeper-than-he-looks aristocrat, Kurt Cobain, a few gods, an angel or two, a young noblewoman named Purity Kloo who wants to escape the dome because she is sick of being sealed in (and because a serial killer is on the loose), a plumber, Walt Whitman, and the pair who originally find Cooper: Asher and Sesstri, who seemingly seek to right the ship of the City, though their agendas are a bit murky from the start.
Whew. If that seems like a lot, well, it’s only because it is. Actually, a bit too much I’d say. Edison is certainly wildly inventive, and often in a wholly original fashion, which is not easy to do and I give him a lot of credit for the imaginative strokes of genius in here. But invention, even wildly imaginative invention, needs (in my mind) can’t be an end unto itself; it needs to be in service of story and character. And in both these areas The Waking Engine falls short.
The plot is a whirling jumble. Edison throws so much into the mix that the reader ends up leaping from one plot point to another with little time for development, sense of importance, or connective tissue. Too often plot events felt wholly arbitrary or contrived. Pacing is also an issue, with the first part of the book quite slow and the ending rushed. In between, there are times where we slow down too much for explanations/details or go too fast and gloss over too much.
The weakness in character exacerbates the plot issue, as we never learn much about any of the characters and so we don’t know what motivates them to do what they do. Without motivation, therefore, their actions or reactions seem wholly random. Cooper, meanwhile, is pretty much a blank slate who mostly gets carried along with events. He’s certainly one of the most passive main characters I’ve come across in some time, and his passivity, combined with his random impulsiveness, makes it difficult to become invested in what happens with him.
The city, in the fashion of the Urban Weird (is that even a term?) is meant to be another main character I think. Edison does mostly a good job of portraying a city slowly being choked off by abdicated leadership, overpopulation, indifference, ambition, jadedness, and the like. At times, though, he seems to try too hard for a sense of shock and seediness — the balance is almost there but not quite. And the pacing gets in the way as I could have done with more time lingering on aspects of the city. Despite that, the city is probably the best character in the entire work — most original, most compelling.
Beyond the setting, Edison’s prose is mostly another strength, often employing a highly charged and vivid poeticism, as in lines such as “a cataract of stairs” or when a building is described as, “withstand [ing] the ravages of dissipation like a queen in a tumbrel.” Though similar to his city descriptions, sometimes he tries a bit too hard and the writing comes off as overly ornate or contrive. But mostly he hits the mark and the prose is really what kept me reading despite the weaknesses in plot and character.
That and the originality of concept and design. There is much to enjoy in The Waking Engine, but I so wish a pre-reader or editor had asked him to save a chunk of his ideas for another novel or a sequel, streamline the plot, and focus as much on character as one setting. All the way through, I kept stopping to ask myself, “Do I like this book or not?” It’s not a question I’m used to asking more than once in a read, and usually when I do ask it of myself the answer is pretty obvious. But for the longest time in The Waking Engine I was never sure; I think because I was responding so strongly to the language and setting/premise. And maybe part of me was hoping that if the weakness in plot and character was negating my enjoyment of language and premise, that maybe Edison would pull off a good ending and leave me tipped on the good side. Unfortunately, the ending was disappointing in several ways. Having finished it, and thought more about it than I typically need to, I find it hard to recommend, though perhaps you should consider that I’m a bit more torn about it than usual.