#CBR6 Review #16: The Waking Engine
Profile: Weird Fantasy
After Action Report:
There is point during the creative process when too many ideas can be as bad as too few. I’m personally a very poor judge of where that limit is, but The Waking Engine is firmly on the wrong side of it. Some of the book’s core concepts are interesting and fresh, but they are buried under layers of borrowed imagery, and symbolism stolen from across the width and breadth of fantasy and science fiction. The only thing I took away was a deeper appreciation for the authors who make genre mashups look easy.
The Waking Engine is the story of Cooper, a young man who is flung across a multiverse and wakes up in home of true death, the City Unspoken. Like a twisted version of Hindu reincarnation, people who die in this setting wake up moments later as themselves on a different world. Eventually, this process leads everyone to the City, where their weary souls might finally find eternal rest. Only, no one’s dying. The City Unspoken is failing and Cooper may have to be the one to put everything right again.
The plot is significantly more complicated than that, with a dizzying array of point-of-view characters. Reincarnated versions of Cleopatra and Richard Nixon put in appearances, alongside techno-organic Faerie queens, flying liches, inbred nobility, and a handful of literal gods. I would estimate that less than a third of the pages are actually about Cooper, and even fewer do anything to move the plot forward. Instead, the narrative line is mired in a tangle of weird fantasy baubles: pretty to look at; impossible to navigate. And when the narrative does manage to move sluggishly forward, it still gets tangled in Edison’s incredibly dense language.
Now, I’m sure anyone who’s read more than one of my reviews is thinking something along the lines of, “Aren’t all the elements you’re talking about here things that you praised in the reviews of other books. *coughChinaMiévillecough*” There isn’t an easy response to this accusation other than, they do it better. Miéville, Valente and even Gaiman all play around with dense language, weird genre mashups and the wholesale stealing of images and symbols, but they do it better. I think it has to do with volume. There are just too many things going on in The Waking Engine for the pieces to ever come together in a meaningful way. I had some of the same complaints about Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, but again, Miéville had a much better balance of borrowed ideas and legitimately new ones.
It’s easy to see the shades of these better worlds in The Waking Engine. The jumping from world to world (and the copious sex scenes) reminded me strongly of Palimpsest and the City Unspoken echoes descriptions of New Crobuzon. But setting alone doesn’t make the book, and without a strong central cast, Edison’s borrowed ideas just aren’t compelling. I never cared if Cooper would succeed because none of the people he could have been saving, himself included, were interesting. The stakes never became clear and Cooper never feels like he deserves his status as a protagonist. Most of the good he does is by accident, and when he does make an effort to help it generally makes things worse. In short, Cooper, and his story, are a giant mess.
While it is true that all good writers are thieves, Edison clearly needs to work on not using all of his purloined gems in one place. When the glitz gets in the way of the storytelling the results may be shiny, but they are deeply impractical and actually unpleasant to read. The Waking Engine isn’t a good book, although if you are just looking for cool images, it might be worth the read.