Everyone has, at some point in their lives, wondered about the afterlife. Whether as the result of following some thread of idle musing, or because one is staring death in the face (so to speak), we all wonder what it might be like after we die. Depending on one’s own beliefs, there might be nothing after death, or there might be something. And even then, what that “something” is depends on one’s culture, beliefs, preferences, and so on. If one believes in an afterlife, one hopes that it is exactly what one wants it to be: a place better than this world.
And because it’s wide-open to speculation, and because no one really knows what the afterlife is like (after all, no one’s exactly come back to tell anyone about it), writers have tended to play with the idea in their own way. The last book I read that played with the concept of the afterlife was Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go. In it, Farmer creates an afterlife wherein everyone who ever lived is revived in a strange river valley, and they must now find a way to survive.
Now, the whole premise of Farmer’s novel is beyond intriguing. After all, who wouldn’t want to live in an afterlife with everyone who ever lived? And then there’s the mystery of who brought humanity back, and why: a mystery that Farmer’s novel attempted to answer. The problem is, To Your Scattered Bodies Go might have an amazing, ambitious concept, but the execution left a lot to be desired. It was racist, misogynist, and utterly weak and confused in its characterization and plotting: extremely disappointing qualities in a book that’s supposed to be a Hugo Award winner. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I swore off the entire series, and hold them in the same space I hold the Twilight Saga and 50 Shades of Grey.
This is why I had such high hopes for David Edison’s The Waking Engine. I first learned about it while I was midway through reading To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and was beginning to get mightily frustrated with Farmer’s work. After reading the blurb for The Waking Engine, I picked it up as a palate-cleanser of sorts, hoping that it would prove to be a far better read than Farmer’s disaster of a novel.
And in a way, I was right: Edison’s novel did prove to be a better read than Farmer’s, but it wasn’t without its own problems. In comparison to the issues I had with To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the problems I had with The Waking Engine don’t seem so bad, but they’re still there.
The Waking Engine conceives of the afterlife thusly: one dies, only to wake in another world, to live another life with all the memories of one’s previous life. In fact, dying is nothing more than a mode of travel across the multiverse: one dies, and lives again elsewhere. One can do this as often as one wants, unless one is bound to one’s body in one’s current plane for a variety of reasons. But for one to truly Die, one must go to the City Unspoken, where the gateway for True Death is located.
It is in the City Unspoken than the protagonist, Cooper, first wakes – an unusual occurrence, since it is Cooper’s first death and so he should have woken elsewhere in the multiverse. But there is a reason for him being in the City Unspoken, and it involves the fact that no one is actually Dying, and that there is a spreading madness in the City Unspoken: a madness that threatens to tear not just the City, but the entire multiverse, apart.
Right from the get-go, this was already better than To Your Scattered Bodies Go – then again, considering how terrible To Your Scattered Bodies Go was, that isn’t really much of a stretch. It was because of this that I was able to power through the first five chapters with delighted glee: the story appeared to have a sense of direction; the first female character didn’t appear to be stereotyped; and what I had seen of other cultures thus far appeared to be treated with respect.
At first, I was very pleased. The concept was as intriguing as the blurb promised, and more besides. I really liked the idea of death as multiverse travel, especially because it sounds like an exciting sort of afterlife. And as for the City Unspoken, I thought it fascinating, with its enormous chains and giant Dome, and its Apostery, where faiths from across the multiverse are buried. It felt a bit like Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, from the book of the same title, or Jay Lake’s City Imperishable from his novel Trial of Flowers, but not quite that, either. Edison succeeded in building a location that seemed to breathe, to live, and that’s something I admire in any writer.
But after a while, the high of discovering that this book wasn’t going to be the horrific mess that To Your Scattered Bodies Go dissipated, and I began to see problems.
The first thing I noticed was the writing itself. Hope had already mentioned to me that she didn’t like the writing style, but at first I didn’t notice it because of the aforementioned high. But by chapter five, I was starting to see issues. It’s very hard to place, but there’s something very off-kilter about Edison’s writing, and not “off-kilter” in a good way. I suppose it has to do with the subtleties of word choice and syntax, , but I also think it has something to do, at least partially, with pacing. This book goes by fast, and I do mean fast: things happen one after another to a host of characters, and it can be a bit difficult to figure out what’s happening to whom – not least because Edison zigzags through character perspectives like nobody’s business. I get the feeling that if this story had gone any slower, it’d fall apart at the seams. More on that later.
This is disappointing, because it doesn’t leave much room for character development. The protagonist, Cooper, doesn’t really develop – at least, not in a way that isn’t linked to external, plot-driven events. Things tend to happen to Cooper, as opposed to happening because he wills them so or because he chooses them to happen. This is disappointing, because it doesn’t really give the reader a chance to truly understand him as a person, to know why he does what he does or makes the decisions he does. Then again, there’s no need for that: most of his decisions are already made for him. In that sense, he rather feels like a bit of a MacGuffin: supposedly necessary for the advancement of the plot, but given little say on how he does so, because it’s all been “fated.”
Unfortunately, this stretches to the other characters, to varying degrees, but not to all. Sesstri, for instance, was a character I liked at the very beginning, but she didn’t seem any better developed than Cooper. Asher was written well enough, given his role in the book, so I’m not too disappointed with the way he was written.
But the real standouts were Purity Kloo and Lallowë Thyu. Purity has the keen observational skills of Sherlock Holmes, while still being able to talk herself out of trouble, plus she can flounce (literally) to save her life. I found that an appealing combination, especially because never, at any point, does she look stupid. She’s aware of the rules of the game she’s playing, and she’s happy to play by those rules – so long as they get her what she wants.
Lallowë, on the other hand, is an interesting kind of villain. It’s easy to think of her as just out-and-out crazy (which she is, to a degree), but there is a reason behind her madness, and it’s not entirely her fault, either. She is simply what she is – or rather, what her mother created her to be. And her mother is…well, let’s just say that there’s a reason Lallowë both fears and loves her, but mostly fears her.
Now, while both Purity and Lallowë are standouts, as I said, their presence in the story is sadly limited. And this is where I have another problem: the lack of any time given to truly process and develop not just the characters, but the story lines, as well. Edison has woven quite a few story lines into this novel, but aside from the main plot none of the others really seem to grow. Everything zips by so quickly that there’s really no chance to just how and why things got to where they are, and this results in quite a bit of spoon-feeding later on in the novel. While I myself don’t mind having to deal with multiple simultaneous plots, I do expect the writer to have a good handle of them and, moreover, be able to develop them as fully as possible.
But that isn’t what happens in this novel. So many questions are raised in the book – about the setting, the characters, and about what’s going on in the plot itself – but only a few of them are answered conclusively, or even explained. And the sad thing is, some of those side-plots are more interesting than the main plot. The thing about Cooper is that not only is he a bland character, his own plot is bland, involving him getting yanked around constantly by destiny or fate or whatever happens to him. On the other hand, everyone else has a more fascinating story: Sesstri’s violent quest for knowledge; Asher’s mysterious past; Lallowë’s attempts to understand what her mother is trying to do; and Purity’s rabid desire to escape – all of these are more interesting than the main plot. Reading about someone getting yanked around by fate is rarely ever as interesting as reading about someone who has to deal with what’s in front of them and make actual, concrete decisions – even if they aren’t the right ones.
Overall, The Waking Engine is a tolerable read – but only just. I suppose it’s because I had something much worse to compare it to that I actually managed to get through it, but if it hadn’t been for the concept, I don’t think I would have read this book through to the end like I did. I just wanted to find out what happened to everyone in the end, I suppose, and sadly not even that ending is as interesting or as powerful as it could have been. Maybe if the characters were truly appealing and the main plot compelling, it might be a different thing entirely, but as it stands, it’s not quite the read I hoped it to be.