Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Deepgate Codex: Alan Campbell

In the music business, there's a standing joke about the difficult second album. It's a cliché I'm fond of hijacking for other enterprises, notably my penchant for referring to Bush the Lesser's difficult second war. There's a matching problem in the novel business; the second book is where you find out whether the writer had more than one book in them. The next milestone - if that one is crossed - is discovering how bad a writer can be when he's got enough clout to tell his editor to back off.

Alan Campbell's first book, Scar Night, really impressed me. It had a great setting and a spread of pretty good characters. It had a lot of the weaknesses which fantasy books always have - it was set in a world where progress had just stopped at an arbitrary point, for a start - but you overlook that stuff if there's enough good work to balance it out. At least it didn't have a map. I liked the setting; a city hanging from chains over a vast chasm; and I liked the fact that the characters didn't understand their own world very well. I could see where it was stealing its ideas from, but that's what writing's about, and at least he wasn't stealing from Tolkien.

Where it all goes horribly wrong for me is where most other people seem to have been delighted; I stopped liking the Deepgate Codex when it blew up Deepgate and went into the bigger world. Part of the deep background for Scar Night is that the people living there believe that there's a god living at the bottom of the chasm, and that he needs to be fed the city's dead so that he can build up his forces to storm heaven. From the reader's point of view, this belief is undercut by the fact that the church managing it is shown to be corrupt, inept and disorganised, so I was reading along thinking; this is cool, they've got a weird religion which is blatantly not real. Nice change. Well, I thought too soon. The nutty religion is literally true, and the second and third books are all about heaven and hell.

Once Campbell gets out onto the road in Iron Angel and God of Clocks, he really loses me. I hammered my way through Iron Angel by dint of trying to enjoy the more human scaled characters, but the mythology was firmly front and centre. With God of Clocks it's pretty much stomping all over everything, and it doesn't really leave very much of what I originally liked.

There's a great deal of imagination on the loose in the three books, but the second and third lack all discipline. With gods and angels and demons stomping all over the landscape, anything at all is possible, and to some extent, when anything might happen in a book it's hard to give a rat's ass. Scar Night has a strong subplot running all the way through it with one very ordinary man trying to save his daughter's soul from perdition by getting her a decent (by Deepgate standards) burial. Mr Nettles' tale is heartbreaking because the stakes are tremendous for him and trivial for everyone else, and he feels completely doomed from the moment we meet him. There's nothing to equal this in the succeeding narrative; it's a curiousity of fiction that when the whole world is at stake there's no real sense of jeopardy. Even though Campbell has been confident enough to destroy the entire setting of the first book, it's still hard to believe that anyone is actually going to destroy the whole world to make his point over the course of a longer narrative. And since that's not going to happen, we need smaller things to worry about and the narrative doesn't deliver them. Stuff happens, then other stuff happens, and it's not necessarily connected to anything else. Finally, very close to the end of God of Clocks, time travel and alternate worlds get thrown into the mix and - well, around about now I expected Patrick Duffy to put his head round the shower curtain.....

The first book of a fantasy sequence tends to have a lot of good stuff in it. The author has had time to hone the ideas and polish every little thing until it fits exactly into place. The first book gets accepted by a publisher and then an editor takes as long as he likes to beat the badness out of it. A new book benefits from time. After that, all bets are off. The follow-ups have to come out reasonably quickly or you risk losing the market. So the pressure is on for books two and three - they need to be in print within a couple of years or the writer misses the boat. The problem is that this doesn't give either the writer or the editor the time they had when they were getting the first one right. The second book will often benefit from a good interaction between the editor and the author as they race to meet the deadline and work together. The third one - well, now it's just a matter of getting it over with. And God of Clocks feels so rushed, so thrown together - by the time I was half way through it, I was starting to dislike the other two books for making me think this one would be worth waiting for. By the time I was three quarters of the way through it, I took a day off to read another transcendently stupid Jack Reacher book, because they never let me down - I expect-time passing crap and I get just that. Then I came back to the last quarter and it's a mess. I've often felt that it would be nice to give Robert Bakker time to go back over his nonborn King sequence again and get the second and third books up to the quality of the first one. I'm not sure I want to give Campbell the same chance because I don't know that I really want to see where he would have gone with his ideas given time.

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