The OF Blog: Review of Alan Campbell's Scar Night

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Review of Alan Campbell's Scar Night

Crossposted at OF's new Reviews section:

Alan Campbell is a newcomer to book writing, but no stranger to story crafting. Before turning to the world of Deepgate, Campbell spent years working as a game designer and programmer for Rockstar, working on games such as the Grand Theft Auto series before deciding that he would rather be an author than a games designer. Scar Night is his first novel, the first in a series called The Deepgate Codex.

Deepgate is a dark and brooding place, suspended by many huge chains above a gaping abyss. The people of Deepgate worship a fallen angel named Ulcis, who according to their religion was expelled from Heaven for seeking to overthrow his mother, Ayan, who had barred humans from entering Heaven. Ulcis and his angelic archons tried and failed to force their way into Heaven and they now lurk in the Abyss, depending upon bodies dropped from the temple at the center of Deepgate to replenish their ranks until they are ready to renew the assault.

Inside the city, one last living descendant of these fallen angels lives. A gawky, adolescent boy, Dill is a showpiece for the cult of Ulcis, standing as a living symbol of the archons and hope for people who want to experience an afterlife of paradise. He is belatedly assigned a tutor, an Spine assassin named Rachel, who is bearing her own mixture of mystery and hurt. She has been hunting this mysterious vampiric entity named Carnival, who feeds during the dark moon period called Scar Night. Three very different people, three threads naturally bound to be united in a harrowing adventure.

Scar Night is more of an atmospheric piece that has some strong influences from Gormenghast and a much lesser extent to the dark urban fantasies of a China Miéville or Ian MacLeod. The pace is a quick one, with plot developments moving at a very rapid pace with the acute sensation that the sense of dark, dank menace that pervades Deepgate is about to get even nastier. The plot develops in quick, staccato-like bursts, as Campbell reveals the setting in bite-size chunks that do not impede the flow of the narrative.

The tale is told via third-person limited, with occasional switches to character PoV thoughts within the chapters. The apparent main character, Dill, is rather too bland at times and ends up taking a backseat to the conflicts and tensions between Carnival and Rachel. It is their interplay and their forced interactions that drives much of the second half of the novel and keeps it from becoming dull and shallow.

Characterization is rather spotty, as Campbell devotes more time to creating the mood than he does to character development. Perhaps he is aiming to reveal more in latter volumes, but for now, what you see is apparently mostly what you are going to get from the characters. But yet it appears that Campbell was not aiming for writing an introspective novel but instead to create a vivid setting with characters just interesting enough to keep the reader's attention as the rather linear plotline progresses. There are some very important developments towards the end, namely just what Ulcis has been up to, and for the most part Campbell handles these progressions quite adroitly, minus a few cases of stilted dialogue towards the end.

As a first novel, Scar Night ranges from adequate to quite good. There are the expected issues with characterization and dialogue, but for the most part, this was an entertaining dark urban fantasy. It just is not (yet, at least) going to offer many extra layers for consideration, but that does not seem to be the author's intent, so based on what I can perceive, Scar Night is a very worthwhile read, particularly for those who enjoy atmospheric novels with a fast-moving plot and mysterious characters.

Summary: Scar Night is an atmospheric, dark urban fantasy involving fallen angels and three mysterious main characters, each of whom has his/her own motivations for staying with the others. Told in third-person limited PoV, Scar Night has a fast-paced plot with some good dialogue, albeit uneven at times, particularly towards the end. Characterization is not fully developed, but with the hope that future volumes will delve into the main characters more. Recommended for those who like "mood pieces" such as Gormenghast or any of China Miéville's work. A good to very good debut that could have been potentially great if a few minor issues mentioned above could have been addressed.

Release Date: December 2006 (US), Summer 2006 (UK)

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