Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Book Review: Sea of Ghosts by Alan Campbell

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When the last of the Gravediggers, an elite imperial infiltration unit, are disbanded and hunted down by the emperor they once served, munitions expert Colonel Thomas Granger takes refuge in the unlikeliest of places. He becomes a jailer in Ethugra – a prison city of poison-flooded streets and gaols in which a million enemies of the empire are held captive. But when Granger takes possession of two new prisoners, he realises that he can’t escape his past so readily.

Ianthe is a young girl with an extraordinary psychic talent. A gift that makes her unique in a world held to ransom by the powerful Haurstaf – the sisterhood of telepaths who are all that stand between the Empire and the threat of the Unmer, the powerful civilization of entropic sorcerers and dragon-mounted warriors. In this war-torn land, she promises to make Granger an extremely wealthy man, if he can only keep her safe from harm.

This is what Granger is best at. But when other factions learn about Ianthe's unique ability, even Granger's skills of warfare are tested to their limits. While, Ianthe struggles to control the powers that are growing in ways no-one thought were possible. Another threat is surfacing: out there, beyond the bitter seas, an old and familiar enemy is rising – one who, if not stopped, will drown the world and all of humanity with it...


Fun, anyone?

Sea of Ghosts marks something of a departure for Scots author Alan Cambell. Having made his name in the speculative fiction community with The Deepgate Codex, an ominous trilogy of urban fantasies as black as pitch, book one of The Gravedigger Chronicles sees Campbell change his tune from a melancholy dirge to a sonorous chorus of bombast and bitterness - and it's music to my ears.

Colonel Thomas Granger should have known to hold his tongue. In the hall of Emperor Hu, a spiteful weasel of a warlord under the thumb of one Briana Marks - a Haurstaf witch whom the Emperor relies upon to keep the sorcerous Unmer race at bay - Granger leaps to the defense of his men, insisting against Hu's insinuations that his "men fought bravely" (p.20) during the war at Weaverbrook. As best they could... considering the circumstances. "We were ill equipped," he admits, "to withstand the naval bombardment you ordered on our position, Emperor." (pp.20-21)

Granger and his men - the Gravediggers, as they've become known (for reasons which hardly bear explication) - are lucky to escape Hu's petty wrath at all. They flee from the warrant the Emperor issues for their arrest and go, against their better judgment, their separate ways. Granger himself braves an ocean made poisonous by the Unmer's thaumaturgy to make ends meet as a gaoler in the prison city of Ethugru, wherein "a million enemies of the empire are held captive" - not least he - and takes a new name to boot: Swinekicker.

Years pass before, quite by chance, Swinekicker comes upon Ianthe and her mother, the latter of whom reminds the once and future gravedigger of an older, if not necessarily simpler time. But Colonel Thomas Granger as was is lost, and Ianthe's pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears... that is until, one night, the girl helps him trawl the oceans for buried treasure - and what alien wonders she finds! Ianthe, it seems, has a gift; a gift no-one, not even she, quite understands; a gift that could shift the balance of power unalterably in a world nature has long since forsaken. Stands to reason that when word about her unique talents gets out, the whole Empire will turn on a dime to bring this unassuming girl under its wing. Except that Granger's having none of it.

In Scar Night, the first volume of The Deepgate Codex - a remarkable debut notwithstanding a few issues - Alan Campbell gave us a lot of characters in precious little time. I don't doubt that the investment he demanded then turned not a few readers off. More's the pity, because if you gritted your teeth and bought into the initial busywork, that trilogy - excepting its disappointing squib of a climax - was the best thing to have come out of Scotland since single malt. I've no such niggles with the beginning of The Gravedigger Chronicles. A sole perspective reigns supreme in Sea of Ghosts; indeed, Granger's is the only perspective for the novel's first third, and the once-bitten gaoler is such a strong character Campbell is able to square on his brilliantly misbegotten shoulders both the considerable worldbuilding load and the narrative as it gathers a head of rank acid steam.

Latterly, both innocent young Ianthe and Maskelyne, a bad guy of the highest order - a borderline sociopath, no less, who appears perfectly rational yet utterly enamored by the opportunities evil behaviours entail - share the storytelling burden, and from the moment Campbell introduces their POVs, Sea of Ghosts kicks into high gear. From high adventure on the high seas to a kamikaze flying chariot, and from the novel use of a blunderbuss of void particles to a particularly memorable episode onboard a ghost ship, the good times come thick and fast, and with the widening gyre of perspective comes a trove of richly wrought sights:

"Racks and cabinets packed with Unmer weapons filled every wall. There were swords of blue and yellow poison-glass and burning-glass with wicked amber edges, seeing knives of the type used by Emperor Hu's blind bodyguards, carbine weapons and hand-cannons for launching sorcerous or cursed missiles, devices that drank blood and whispered or screamed spells and Unmer war songs, jeweled dragon harnesses and mirrored armour, black stone armour and platinum runic plate, death vision helmets and torcs and rings of every conceivable warrior's nightmare. Ten score objects sparkled in the gloom, treasure salvaged from drowned battlefields across the world. And every single piece of it enacted some horrible price from the wielder or wearer, what the Unmer would refer to as Balance." (pp.196-197)

Speaking of balance, though it often recalls in terms of sheer pleasure, awe and wanton discovery the likes of Retribution Falls - with an aesthetic lifted from Bioshock: the sea rather than the sky of Chris Wooding's award-nominated novel - book one of The Gravedigger Chronicles isn't all fun and games.The Deepgate Codex was too oppressive for some; so dark the light at the end of the tunnel was sometimes tough to pick out. So too does Sea of Ghosts have its darkness, and at times it's grim indeed - the mooted gang-rape of Ianthe comes to mind, as does the Maskelyne's similarly perverse treatment of his woefully submissive wife - but bracketing the forbidding lightlessness there's a twinkle, always a twinkle. Of the fate of a back-stabber come to collect on his promised ransom, the mad scientist and his other half wonder aloud:

"I don't like him."
"That seems like an appropriate and reasonable reaction."
"Will you kill him?"
Maskelyne turned to face her. "Why would I do that?"
"To save money."
"I'm married to a sociopath." (p.183)

By all rights, book one of The Gravedigger Chronicles should mark a watershed moment in Alan Campbell's career. Sea of Ghosts is a stonking good time, rip-roaring and boundlessly ambitious - a breathless, whistle-stop tour of a wonderfully moldering world one can only glee in imagining the stories Campbell is set to tell in. Onwards, I say! And upwards, I do not doubt.


Sea of Ghosts
by Alan Campbell

UK Publication: April 2011, Tor (Macmillan)
US Publication: TBA

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  1. A review like this shows how perspectives differ markedly on the same book; I have finished the book yesterday too, though I do not plan to formally review it until around publication day next year and I was mixed; the writing style does not chime with me many times - eg the passage you quoted sounds what you hear in a geeky movie with teenagers or read in a cartoon - and the characters in the book are pure stock with no depth - eg the frightened but very powerful girl, the honor, duty, bla..., officer relegated by caricature emperor to exile...

    Also there are so many over the top action sequences that happen because they need to happen...

    There were moments I thought the book would break out for me and become a big time favorite and then stuff like Hu strutting around (that character is so cartoonish that kills suspension of disbelief at any appearance), or Maskelyne's 2 cents philosophizing and explaining how awesome a bad guy he is, would come and I would be, not again...

    But the book is still impressive for its many goodies, the ingenious world building and I am definitely curious to see where it goes.

  2. Liviu - hey!

    I'd usually hold off on reviewing a book so far out too, as I have done with The Heroes and did do with Full Dark, No Stars, but this one... well, Alan's a fellow Scotsman, and I wanted to get to Sea of Ghosts while it was fresh in my mind. Still, no excuse; in shame I hang my head.

    Shame you didn't love Sea of Ghosts half as much as I did, but that's par for the course, I suppose - I remember your review of The Left Hand of God factoring largely into my excitement for a book that turned out, at least from my perspective, to be one of the most execrable messes I'd read in years. But to each their own - was ever that old mantra more appropriate!

  3. I liked the review, I just wished I would have loved the book the same; I am sending my copy to my co-editor Robert, a big, big fan of Alan Campbell and I am curious about his impressions too.

    As for Scotland, well IM Banks is the one author I always associate to it in sff, though there are several more I appreciate a lot - as in top 10 sf authors of mine - like Gary Gibson and Ken MacLeod

  4. Half-way through Sea Of Ghosts and am in awe at its greatness. Fascinating characters, some wonderful ideas and accomplished writing style (only marred by the more-than-I'd-expect typos that slipped through).

    I'd forgotten you'd written a review of this Niall. You should re-tweet reviews when the book's released?

  5. That sounds like a neat compromise, Afront - what to do with reviews of books that are still a ways out when I need to talk about them NOW, you know? And a little twitter reminder here and there sure wouldn't hurt, so. :)