I bought Iron Angel by Alan Campbell last summer at the recommendation of a friend and fellow aspiring writer. It sat on my shelf for a while (I have a pretty depressing backlog right now, and that doesn’t even include a host of more literary works I know I should read at some point), but the time came for me to dive into a good fantasy novel, and there it was waiting for me.
Fantasy stories are subject to the same standards of criticism as any other genre — characters, plot, compelling language, and so forth — but there are a couple of genre-specific criteria against which they are measured as well. Foremost among those is world building. Fantasy writers get to throw out all the rules that govern our universe (except the rules of human interaction) and build new worlds from scratch. Anne Rice built such a compelling world that there have been (probably) hundreds of stories set in it by lesser writers who do not possess her world-building skills.
Mr. Campbell has built himself a hell of a world here. It’s a sort of Steam Punk/Fantasy mashup. Mashups are all the rage these days, but it’s still refreshing to find one that’s actually done well. Here we have a world with magic and whatnot, and also giant steam-powered war machines (imbued with human souls). The world is an Earth sandwich, with an unresponsive heaven above, expansionist hell below, and angels and demons slugging it out on mortal man’s turf. From the human point of view, there’s not a whole lot of difference between an angel and a minion of hell.
The cover of the book says “By the author of Scar Night.” In fact the book is a sequel. Had I stumbled into the middle of a series? The answer to that was a pretty clear ‘yes’. In the first chapters the author went to great lengths to bring me up to speed on the events of the previous book, and while a crash course is never as fun as a well-paced story, I was nevertheless encouraged by the author’s effort to make the book I was holding a stand-alone story. Specifically, I was confident that there would be an end to at least one major story line by the time I reached the back cover of the book.
About halfway through, I began to worry. Characters had been introduced but not revisited for hundreds of pages. The vectors of the characters’ storylines were parallel. I became more worried after a part of the story that goes like this:
Leader of Good Guys: You must not be caught! I’ll sacrifice myself so you can get away!
Unlikely Hero: OK.
Unlikely hero wanders through hell, avoiding capture. There is a section where he outsmarts a magical door. It’s a nice anecdote, the sort of thing that the Odyssey is composed of, but when the little mini-story is over, the larger story is advanced… not at all. (As I recall, Odysseus didn’t learn much either.) Then, to top it off:
Unlikely hero gets caught.
Now, the unlikely hero’s adventures could have been meaningful. UH might have learned a key fact that he could use later, or he could have an experience that would teach him about himself — he could find strength or expose a weakness. In this case, none of that happened. He had interesting adventures, but in the grand scheme, they mattered not at all.
After I got through that part, I started to worry. Spending so many pages on anecdotes that don’t move the plot does not indicate an author who intends to put any sort of closure at the end of the current volume. I checked the cover again, for anything like “Book two of…” but there was nothing to warn me that this book was dependent on others. OK, no worries; the story is entertaining and the prose is solid if not magical, Just enjoy the ride.
As an aside, in a long adventure story, ‘solid’ is often preferable to ‘magical’ when it comes to the prose. When you’re spinning a yarn, you don’t want your language upstaging your story. You want the words to disappear, the same way the letters do.
On we went. Campbell pulled out some pretty cool inventions, and a transparent train that bugged me immensely. Still, the story vectors were starting to converge, the sudden appearance on the scene of a new secret society was handled with brevity and grace, and it all came down to a final cataclysmic battle. We’ll get to that in a moment.
First I have a brief quibble about economics. Humans are slaughtered in this book. Lots of them. Legions of them. And down in hell their souls are chewed up and spit out, presumably reduced to ultimate nonexistence. At the rate things are going, the world would be depopulated in short order, and not long after that, hell would run out of souls to play with. I think on our current Earth, we send about 8500 souls down to hell on any given day. Iron Angel’s world is much less populous, yet the folks down in Hell chew through souls like they’re peanuts. Somewhere in there the demand curve has to kick in, and human life becomes more valuable in the eyes of both angels and demons.
Although, in this story human extinction is a real possibility, and that’s pretty cool. It’s just that neither side is making good use of available resources.
So: the final cataclysmic battle. I don’t want to give away too much, but…
It wasn’t final. It was a trap! The “book” (actually a volume) ends with the bad guys pulling a major coup and the real evil army arriving on the scene. We ran out of pages with not even a pretense of an ending. AAAAHHHHHHH!
END OF SPOILER
So here we have a peeve of mine — a book that does not have an end at the end. At least most of the time when this happens the publisher has the grace to put “Book 2 of the Steampunk Angel series” or something like that on the cover. Not this time. “By the author of” does not communicate that you are not buying a complete story. Quite the opposite. This was not a novel. It was not a story. It was a well-written fragment. In the back pages where they tried to sell me the next installment, I found the words “book three.” HA! They knew all along it was simply an episode in a series, they just didn’t put that information on the cover.
Why would they hide that fact? There’s only one reason I can think of. They want to trick people like me into buying volume two. Man, this gets my goat. Mr. Campbell probably had no control over this; he wrote a big-ass story that took three volumes to tell, and sold it to unscrupulous people who actively hid that fact to the naïve book-buying public.
So, here’s the label I would put on the cover of this book: WARNING: This well-written and downright clever work has study hall at the beginning and CONTAINS NO END! The next book will have an end, we promise — and if you read this volume study hall next time will be really easy.
Personally, I think I’ll wait for the box set.
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