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The Waking Engine by David Edison

3/5 Stars

This was a book that was immensely frustrating to me because I kept on wanting it to be more than it was. I was drawn in by a snippet from the very beginning of the book and the slightly creepy but lovely cover. I was also looking forward to reading a book with a premise that I, at least, had not encountered before – death leads, not to heaven or a celestial afterlife, but to another life somewhere else. As does the next death, and the one after that, etc, until one finally ends up in the City Unspoken (the setting of most of the novel), where one finally has a chance, perhaps, to die for good.

The problem is, people aren’t dying, and those who are ready to are clogging up the streets, and there are Undead Lich kings trying to take over the city, and there’s an Unseelie Faerie Queen turned Cyber-Fae trying to muck things up, and all of this should have been really interesting, but… it left me cold.

I think the thing about books with this kind of ambition is that the more strange or horrific or mind-bending your universe, the more you really have to work to give the work coherence. I’m not talking about “making the reader comfortable” here, I’m talking about making all the parts of the story and the world work together as an organic whole, even if that whole takes place in an off-kilter universe that makes the audience re-examine their ideas about the nature of reality. And I don’t think that this novel manages to do that. I’ll admit that the author set the bar quite high for himself, what with all of the very disparate parts, but I always felt jarred, and not in an intentional way, I think, when I moved between sections.

I think one problem is that this barely 400-page novel is weighted down with far too many characters, and so I didn’t get a chance to know hardly any of them, and when major things happened to them. The sad thing is that the characters have potential. I love the idea of Sesstri most – born to a nomadic warrior culture that denies women the right to even learn to read, she turns scholar in her subsequent lives, and I think that’s rife with interesting possibilities. I had the same problem with Asher, whose story should have been epic, but lacked sufficient explanation for his motivation, so the big reveal of what he really is and the resolution just felt like a neat way to tie up a loose end. Don’t even get me started on Purity and her mason boyfriend and the noble girls inside the Dome. I get that the author was going for a juxtaposition of manners and horrific behavior there, but it just set my teeth on edge.

One of the other things that really bothered me is that is seemed like the author was trying to bludgeon me with how otherworldly and terrifying the City Unspoken is – yes, I understand that the towers burn with unnatural fire (though we’re apparently supposed to just accept that lich lords… exist somehow and are up there, with very little explanation of how they got there. I suppose we’re just supposed to accept the fae, too, but I felt like that part was more organic – he did some really wild things with the Lich Lords that needed more explanation and setup). Anyway, I could have done with less of the impending doom spook factor, and more character development, please.

So, my final verdict is that while The Waking Engine contains the occasional really good metaphor or startlingly well-crafted image, the prose is dense and lacks the substance to carry its own weight.


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August 2014

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