This is a curious and unusual book. There has been some sort of apocalypse, not explained, but a kind of civilisation has been maintained or restored. There is education, trade, the arts, money, technology. Some type of cloud or fog covers much of the sky, creating a grey world where not much grows, but there are rumours of better places further south with more sunshine. Marquos, the main character, lives on a small barge, travelling restlessly around the canals and rivers of Estalia. At some point in the recent past, he was working in the mines to the south, but seems to have absconded, taking with him Red, a six-year-old child, in order to return her to her parents in the north.
The first part of the book is a fairly slow and gentle amble, stopping at Marquos’s home town to meet his family briefly, then on northwards, with various encounters along the way. Marquos is a strange character, hostile to a passing group of Estalian military pursuing some rebel Kands (foreigners), but surprisingly tolerant when he later meets up with a couple of the Kandish rebels. Helping the Kands is likely to be a seriously bad move, but Marquos does it anyway. The only argument the Kands use is that their cause is just, something that should carry no weight with Marquos, who is not Kandish and has no reason to be sympathetic. Yet he takes them in anyway – why?
Inevitably, things go pear-shaped, and Marquos loses Red, the one person he truly seems to care about and want to help. And instead of setting off to rescue her (again), he trusts the Kands to do it, and accepts a mission to go north and find a missing scientist. I have to say, Marquos is not a typical fantasy main character, the sort with a Destiny and a Purpose and eyes glinting with determination. He’s more of a shrug and drift along with life sort of man. Not that I have any objection in this case, since Red was fairly wet, as motivational characters go, and finding her and restoring her to her family sounds a lot less interesting at this point than heading for the mysterious north.
Once Marquos is committed to the Kands (and when I say committed, I mean that he shrugs and goes along with whatever they suggest, while feebly protesting), the pace begins to hot up and there are numerous fights and narrow escapes and chases. And explosions. And fires. And a whole heap of death and destruction and devastation along the way. In between times, there are pages and pages of earnest conversations about what the Kands are fighting for and their history and the various injustices of this world and general philosophical discourse. Which is lovely, if you like that sort of thing, but I would have traded much of it for some depth to the characters (any of the characters, actually, not just Marquos) and some more realistic human interaction.
Some grumbles. I would have liked more information about this world, and how things now operate. If it’s so difficult to grow things, how come there is enough food to go round? And there seem to be no population pressures, since everyone’s expected to marry and have children. I would have liked to know what, exactly, the staple foods were. And a map – I desperately wanted a map. Being post-apocalypse, I presume that Estalia is based on the real world (Britain?), and it would have been nice to tie some of the places mentioned to real world places. And all those canals – old ones restored, or new ones? We’re never told. The political situation, especially the numerous factions of tribes of Kands, seemed very complicated to me, and I was never quite sure I’d got it straight in my head.
The writing style is rather odd, slightly clunky as if it’s a translation, or English was not the author’s first language. For instance, Marquos doesn’t shave, he ‘chiselled the stubble from around his jaw with a knife’. Sounds painful. There are numerous small, insignificant typos which nevertheless grate when you notice them. In a few places, a word choice was so unusual I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or a deliberately obscure metaphor. A thorough edit would have cleaned up a lot of the oddities.
The biggest problem I had with the book was the lack of emotional engagement. I didn’t care much about any of the characters. I didn’t care about their objectives. I certainly didn’t care about the Kands and their rebellion, and I couldn’t see that they were any better or more justified in their actions than the Border Guards they were fighting. Partly, I suppose, this is because of Marquos himself, who is essentially disconnected from any personal engagement. If the main character doesn’t care about the events of his own world, why should the reader? The writing style is a contributary factor here, simply describing the events in a fairly flat tone and rarely delving into what the characters are actually feeling, except for occasional outbreaks of despair or borderline insanity.
What kept me reading, though, was curiosity about the world. I really wanted to know more about it, and how things work. There are some wonderfully atmospheric passages as the barge chugs along the waterways through grey, lifeless countryside. The north was eerily empty and cold, and the moment when the stars appear is beautifully and vividly described. The technology is fascinating too (gyrocopters, airships, floating castles and a vast array of improvised weaponry). And the ending is suitably epic and uplifting. For those who enjoy a lot of philosophising about war and injustice and the meaning of life in a bleak steampunkish setting with plenty of high-casualty battles and explosions, this is the book for you, and there are some thought-provoking ideas here for those who can tease them out of the general ramble of dialogue. I found it too depressing a read overall to be quite comfortable, and I like my characters a little more realistic and less arbitrary than this, but it was certainly an interesting tale, unusual and completely unpredictable (there was only one moment where I actually guessed what was about to happen). Three stars.