Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Bastard Love Child of China Mieville and Richard Morgan

Heart of Veridon opens with a bang, literally. In the annals of opening sentences, “I was on the Glory of Day when she fell out of the sky” ranks pretty high. What follows is a loud, messy zeppelin crash that leaves a sole survivor, our hero, Jacob Burn. In subsequent chapters we settle into a speedy thriller storming through a steampunk city. At first it feels like a bastard mash-up of China Mieville’s Bas Lag series, with its baroque, grimy, stratified cities, and Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series, with its fast-paced vivdly described violence. Wow! I thought. And with passages like the following, it’s imagery seemed to reach towards a deeper theme:

It happened sudenly. The Artificers set down the jar and tiped it over. The swarm spilled out like glittering, jeweled honey, their tiny legs clicking against the wood as they washed across the stage. They climbed the girl and began to nest with her, become her, entering the secret machines that made up the engram. They were seeking their queen and her pattern, the song stitched into her shell and her memory, awaiting birth and creation. The girl shivered, and she became.
Much like the Remade in Mieville, people in this universe can be extensively modified for various tasks—and it’s not pretty or pleasant. The girl in the above passage is a performer; later that same artifice will make her a demonic assasin. Our hero has been extensively modified to be a zeppelin pilot, although he was only a passenger on the doomed Glory of Day. The technology used to do this is equal parts alchemy, genetic engineering and steampunk machinery; things with mystical symbols, bred to encode them, whirring with gears and metal. It seems like an excellent entry point to questions of identity and exploitation.

However, in Akers’ debut novel the story settles too easily into the rhythm of the thriller plot. Once the narrative starts down that path, nothing diverts it from its prescribed course. It hits all the beats: Jacob has a macguffin, which he doesn’t understand; there are different factions competing for it; Jacob doesn’t know whom to trust, but picks up a love interest and a sidekick; after much frantic activity, he finally comes to a moment of understanding; quickly followed by the resolution. This is all well done—it’s fast paced, easy to read, the narrator (first person) is sympathetic, the love interest and sidekick are easy to like.

I just couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been so much more. The imagery and world-building suggested many more layers, but none of them were illuminated by the plot. These hints resurface once more during the Moment of Revelation, but by then it’s too constrained by the needs of Plot to spare time for Theme.

That said, this thriller is unflinching. Aside from the graphic violence, the narrator is given the opportunity to make a really difficult choice. Unusually, the author keeps his fingers off the scale that balances one side against the other. The hero also suffers real consequences for that choice, which is itself refreshing. Still, without the world-building aiming to add depth to the themes suggested by the excellent imagery, I felt that Veridon didn’t quite live up to its potential. However, the simple fact that it has that much potential bodes well for Akers’ next effort. I’ll be looking forward to it.

Full disclosure: Why did I pick this book to read? I met Tim Akers at two cons this year, introduced by another relatively new writer, Daryl Gregory (see full disclosure on my review of Devil’s Alphabet). I knew Tim had his first book coming out this year, and when I saw it on sale at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose, I made sure to grab it (although I neglected to get it signed, whoops). I finished the book I brought with me, and needed something to read on the plane ride home. As it happened, Heart of Veridon was the only mass-market paperback that I had out of all the pounds of books I got at WFC (Curtis and I shipped quite a few books home). So I grabbed it for plane reading, and enjoyed it enough to finish at home. The cover art didn’t hurt either. Quite striking, and it actually gives some useful indication of the book’s content. At first I thought it was a Martiniere, but the artist is actually Jon Foster.

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