★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
The Waking Engine
Ebook, aprox. 400 pages
Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times... until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found.
Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls... and one very confused New Yorker.
Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys... and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.
Happy 2014, everyone! Sure, I am a little late, posting my first review on January 28, but I assure you I can explain.
Today, I bring you David Edison’s debut novel, The Waking Engine. I found this book on NetGalley, possibly two days after signing up, and the blurb made me really, really curious. I mean, people who keep dying only to wake up again in a whole new universe? A City where everybody comes to die after they've finished their joyride? And of course... Death Boys and Charnel Girls? If you know me, you'll know that's when I decided to request the book.
Cooper is not your average book protagonist. He’s gay, he’s overweight, and he’s dead. (this is where I give David Edison a respectful high five because YAY PROTAGONISTS THAT BREAK THE MOLD!) When he wakes up in the City Unspoken, with no idea of how he got there, he is immediately adopted by a grey-skinned man and a pink-haired woman, who seem to believe he is the solution to the overpopulation problem that plagues the City because the dying can no longer die. Of course, you and I know where this is going. Cooper, is of course, the good old Chosen One. In the span of a few days, he develops totally rad powers, including sensing people's fear in verbal form and traveling through some sort of anachronic faerie-powered internet, and in the end, he does what Chosen Ones usually do. Meh.
This is the main plot – and it’s pretty bland, compared to the subplots. Look above. Look at the blurb. See the murderous aristocrats? Sure, I know we see nobles killing each other in 90% of fantasy books... but not while they’re locked inside a glass dome, not over something as fickle as wearing the same dress two days in a row, and definitely not when none of them can actually die (since their souls are bound to their bodies). It’s inside the dome that we meet Purity Kloo, a noble girl desperate to find a way out – so desperate, indeed, that she spends a week slitting her own throat only to come back every single time.
Sure, a story about murderous teenage nobles dressed in the metaverse's equivalent of Lolita fashion wouldn't have appealed to the target audience that The Waking Engine is trying to attract, I suspect... but I had a lot of fun with Purity's subplot, and would have switched it for Cooper’s without so much as a second thought.
Final words about the plot: it's convoluted. I love the idea of the City Unspoken, but a setting that is part our world part every other world in existence demands time, and Edison doesn't cut the reader any slack before overwhelming them with references to greek mythology (Omphale, right, well played), the AIDS epidemic of the 80s, Cleopatra’s historical relevance, the wise advice of a beluga whale, and the literal ins-and-ours of a cyborg Queen.
As far as protagonists go, Cooper sure breaks a couple of molds, but it takes more than that to write a good character. It’s not just that he’s uninteresting, he’s not even very coherent – he speaks like an angry New Yorker ready to break a few noses, but his inner monologue is equal parts disoriented, skeptic, and terrified, and his actions are reactive at best. Sometimes I felt as if I was reading three different characters. And then, of course, he meets attractive men and his brain goes into full shutdown, which is both amusing and exasperating. Focus, sir!
About Purity (our other protagonist, sort of), I found her to be just the right balance between... well, what her name suggests her to be, and someone I wouldn’t want to cross on a bad day. She’s smart, she’s competent, she’s a bit of a wildcard, and she’s sexual without being sexualised. I could see her leading a girl gang, really.
I won’t write about every character, so let me just wrap this section by saying this book achieved something really, really good with its female characters. Here, women move most of the plot, making this book something I’d like to show all those male writers who say “they can’t write women”. Listen, here’s the secret: write more than one-two, and give them a personality of their own. Thank you, David Edison.
I’ve already written a bit about my love for the City Unspoken as a concept, but now I’d like to present a complaint about the way it was written. For a place where people of all universes come to die, the City was a little overpopulated by humans, no? Even the architecture of the place was awfully familiar – taverns, shady boarding houses, classy bordellos, sex workers on every street corner. If your City is a repository of culture for every universe, why does it look like every dark medieval-ish city I’ve ever read? Surely beings from other universes have priorities other than food-sleep-sex, no? If not, I call lazy writing. It takes more than supernatural powers and skin of an unnatural color to create a different species.
Now to the good points: I loved the Apostery, a temple for dead religions. (what an idea!) I also found the different types of “prostitutes” very interesting – I mean, it’s terribly morbid to have someone body-bound accepting their own murder every day in exchange for money, but it’s a good idea that fits perfectly with the bigger picture. I could have lived with a little less “whores” and “sluts” every two paragraphs, though.
4. Writing style
As a general rule, I don’t complain too much about elaborate writing styles, because I like them. Here, though, I found the “style” really overwhelming – there were sentences I had to read over and over again, just to extract some meaning from their structure and the excess of strange, possibly universe-relevant but plot-irrelevant words.
Conclusion: the ideas behind this book are all very good, but the execution left quite a bit to be desired. The main-main character, Cooper, is easily the least interesting character in the book. The setting wasn’t as exhaustively explored as it should have been – or, in any case, as I wish it could have been. The writing style was a little too much for me. It’s not bad, in any way, but I can’t lie – it took me a month to get through it, and that simply doesn’t happen with books I like. So, it shall receive a two-star rating, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed for David Edison’s next book.