Sunday, July 15, 2012

100 Books #64 - Trent Jamieson's NIGHT'S ENGINES

I wasn't able to say much about Roil, Book One of this "duology", because I read it at the height of my double dose of tennis- and golfer's elbow, but I stand by what little I did say; it was one of my favorite books I read last year, exciting and strange and different and provocative. I stamped my virtual feet and howled for Jamieson and Angry Robot to hurry up with the sequel already.

I almost felt the need, though, to take a time out and re-read Roil, because what stuck in my head from that book was not the story so much as the world, which would have been fine except for the fact that this second volume of The Nightbound Land is all about the story; we barely even see the Roil, that ever-increasing zone of chaos and devilry which is rapidly swallowing and colonizing* the planet on which our unfortunate human and Aerokin (the name for the vast, sentient, living airships that share that city-in-the-air, Drift, with their human pilots and friends. Oh, and a giant rock, shaped like an inverted mountain, that impossibly floats at the heart of Drift. Yeah.) characters live. I guess its menace is supposed to have been established well enough last book so for this book we're just supposed to focus on our heroes' efforts to destroy it.

Not that there isn't conflict, for the defense mechanisms with which mankind holds off and hopes someday to destroy the Roil are pretty nasty. And some of them are alive and sentient: the Old Men, raving and ravenous immortal creatures who are specially linked to a series of Lodes, themselves linked to a vast machine at the planet's North Pole, that, if anyone managed to activate it (only Old Men can do that, by means of their engineering rings), would bring on the Mechanical Winter. That's right: the goal is to freeze out the Roil.

Our heroes are the typical small band of misfits: David, a dissolute son of a politician who began the last novel as just another poor little rich kid junkie but ended it possessed by the Old Man who had sort of helped him escape his city after his dad was assassinated and the Roil began to engulf the place; Margaret, daughter of a pair of geniuses who had developed an arsenal of weapons against the Roil but then were absorbed by it (an early scene in which Margaret is confronted by her mother, now a demon of the Roil, is chilling as hell, literally because the weapons mama designed and daughter employs so effectively are all based on generating cold, as well as figuratively); Kara, pilot of the Aerokin Roslyn Dawn, crazy and daring and a bit of a prodigal problem child as far as the city of Drift is concerned; Medicine Paul, physician and unlikely sort-of-leader of the Underground, destination of refugees, where the bulk of mankind may have to make its last stand. They're all pretty interesting, but not as interesting as the world they call home, which, as I said, we see less of in this book.

If I sound disappointed in Night's Engines, I suppose that's because I am, a touch. Roil balanced character establishment with world-building and was immensely, tensely engrossing, teeming with monsters and crazed action scenes and a sense of perpetual peril. With the exception of the prologue, which knocks the reader's socks right off with action and battle, scary monsters and super creeps, Night's Engines takes all that for granted and just sort of plods, relying on the generally distant menace of the deranged Old Men pursuing David for most of its tension -- and even these vampirish monsters on the move are barely glimpsed. We know the Roil is out there chiefly by the chapter headings, which give a location, usually a city, and its distance from the leading edge of the Roil, which would be an effective device if it didn't constantly tease us with what we weren't getting in this book: more Cuttlemen and Quarg Hounds and Hideous Garment Flutes! Come on! We barely even get any Witmoths! The last third of the book gives us a little more of this, but the effect there is just to emphasize the lack of same in the first two thirds, sadly.

This is not to say that Night's Engines is a bad book; quite the contrary. David's struggle against the hungering, weird, possessing force of the Old Man who infected him in Roil is pretty good stuff that almost makes this book worth reading all on its own, as is the (regrettably brief and infrequently given) account of an entire city's worth of refugees staggering north, with the Roil in close pursuit, on foot (I, for one, would have liked a great deal more of that. A great deal). It was just hard to buy these as a sequel to the anxious, deranged imaginings of Roil. The jeopardy the Roil poses should not be taken as a given; it should still be illustrated vividly, as it was to such stunning effect in the first book -- especially since not everyone who picks this up is going to have read the first one.

I came very close to giving this a mere three stars over on Goodreads, but for the sneaking hunch I have that, if read together with Roil in an omnibus edition, back to back, the whole taken as one might feel greater than this single part, read eight months after the other. I might try that sometime, such was my love for Roil.

*And oh, how it colonizes. Ahead of its actual spread are sent "witmoths," tiny, black, fluttering creatures that get inside people and take over their bodies and minds, reproducing inside them and eventually bursting them open to spread more witmoths. You can't always tell when someone is infected. They were used to marvelously creepy effect on board a train bound for doom in Roil; here they only make a few cameo appearances. Sigh.

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