Book Review: Scar Night by Alan Campbell

Format: Hardback, First Edition, 2006

Pages: 421

Reading Time: about 8 hours

As I stated a few days ago, gritty urban fantasy is not my cup of tea. I don’t have anything against that genre per se, and I won’t stir up any controversy like Leo Grin did with his post on Nihilism and Tolkien last month. Now, understand that I wouldn’t be happy if editors chose to publish urban fantasy at the expense of traditional fantasy, much in the way that record executives turned to Grunge in the early 90s and let 80s Melodic Rock die. Fortunately that’s not the case here…there’s room for everybody’s brand of fantasy in today’s publishing world. So normally I steer clear of urban fantasy without disparaging it, and everybody wins.

What attracted me to Scar Night was the synopsis on the inside sleeve: a city suspended by chains over an abyss, with angels and assassins – it hinted at the makings of a great fantasy story. So I decided to take a chance on an unknown author and I picked it up. I was well over a 100 pages into the book before I lost interest and put it back in the queue. I finished Glen Cook’s Angry lead Skies a few days ago, and while I waited for The Wise Man’s Fear to arrive, I decided to pick Scar Night back up and finish it. And although I’m glad I did ( I wanted it out of the queue), the story was not what I expected, nor what I was led to believe. More on that in a moment.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Deepgate. There is also a nearby area called the Deadsands that is visited, and the bottom of the abyss is also used as a setting. Deepgate is suspended over the abyss on a network of immense chains. It is an industrial city, at war with the people of the Deadsands. The Deadsand people are called Heshettes, and they bear a strong hatred towards Deepgate due to the airships/zeppelins of Deepgate dispersing chemical weapons on the Heshette. The main characters in the story are Devon, the Deepgate Poisoner; Dill the Angel; Rachel the Spine Assassin; Mr. Nettle, a giant of a man searching for his daughter’s soul; Carnival the vampire/demon/angel; and Sypes, the Presbyter, priest of the god Ulcis and ruler of Deepgate.

The characters are interesting and fairly well-developed. My main problem with them is that I didn’t really care about any of them. This is a risk that writers face when writing dark or urban fantasy – it can be hard for a traditional fantasy reader to care about deeply flawed characters that aren’t heroic. Campbell tries hard to make Dill the most sympathetic character, but the angel is annoyingly weak throughout the book. Rachel is the only character that feels heroic, as her task is to stop Carnival from killing the citizens of Deepgate. But we don’t spend enough time in Rachel’s head to feel what she feels. Her feelings are explained, but not felt…that’s probably the best way I can describe it. Carnival is the most intriguing character, but not enough time is devoted to her thoughts and actions. These characterizations are one of the reasons I lost interest 100 pages in; the other reason is that much of the action takes place over the last half of the book, so the first half suffers from bad pacing as it attempts to establish the characters. There is also a third reason I lost interest: my own misconceptions of the book’s genre, drawn from the only information I had at the time of purchase at Borders (back in 2006): the dust jacket.

Campbell’s ideas are highly imaginative, and Scar Night is not a bad story by any means, but I was expecting something different. Nowhere in the synopsis (on the inside dust jacket) is mention made of industry, chemical warfare, or other aspects of urban fantasy; therefore, I read the synopsis in the context of a traditional fantasy setting and was surprised that it wasn’t. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that the synopsis was carefully written to exclude any mention of its urban fantasy elements, so as not to scare off traditional fantasy readers (keep in mind that this was a debut novel for the author). Also, the inside sleeve of the dust jacket has a blurb that describes the story as “the stunning clarity of Neil Gaiman with the rich world-building of Steven Erikson.” I haven’t read Neil Gaiman, but I have read Steven Erikson, and this book doesn’t have 10% of the world-building of Steven Erikson. It’s not the first time that blurbs on the dust jacket have been deceptive – I can’t count how many times a book was compared to Lord of the Rings and ended up falling well short of that mark – but it doesn’t change the fact that the statement is (in my opinion) highly inaccurate. Also, the synopsis claims that Dill and Rachel join forces with Carnival to prevent the annihilation of the city and themselves. This is also deceptive, as the characters don’t even know they are facing annihilation upon entering the abyss…the joining of forces seems like more of an accident, and (minor spoiler alert ahead!) seems unbelievable – when Rachel jumps into the abyss, Carnival saves her, when just minutes before Carnival wanted Rachel dead. Why was Rachel saved? It’s never explained. I will offer the disclaimer that the issues I have with the synopsis and dust jacket blurb are not the author’s fault, but since they played a part in my decision to purchase the book, I feel it should be mentioned.

As the action picks up in the second half of the book (major spoiler alert ahead!), I became more engrossed in the story. However, the ending was a disappointment, as the god Ulcis was easily overcome despite the implication that he was incredibly powerful (he is described as a god, after all), and his undead minions continued to fight even after his death, when it’s not clear what their motivation was to keep fighting. Maybe these issues are resolved in the sequel, but I suspect they aren’t. When combined with the illogical “joined forces” problem I mentioned earlier, and an abrupt ending designed to set up the sequel, my overall impression of the story was apathetic.

Readers of urban fantasy may enjoy Scar Night despite these issues. From the reviews at Amazon, it seems as if the sequel, Iron Angel, is better, although the third book, God of Clocks, sounds like a big disappointment to most readers. With the last book in the series getting so-so reviews, you have to decide whether or not it’s worthwhile to put the time into these stories. Based on my reading experience and my misconceptions of Scar Night, I won’t be picking up the sequel unless I have nothing else to read. Considering the amount of books in my queue, that probably isn’t going to happen.

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