The Waking Engine: Great premise, falls short

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Waking Engine, by David Edison fantasy book reviewsThe Waking Engine by David Edison

The Waking Engine, by David Edison, continues my unfortunately long-running streak of books that fell short of their potential. As with many of them this past month or so, The Waking Engine has a great premise — people (defined very broadly) do not die just once; instead they do so multiple times, each time waking in a new body to a new life on another world, but with all their memories intact. Eventually, however, you’ll end up in one of a few places where True Death occurs. And one such place, the City Unspoken, is the setting for Edison’s novel, which opens (after a short prologue) with the main character, Cooper, awakening in the City after only his first death, a highly unusual occurrence.

Cooper arrives in the midst of a multi-pronged crisis. The dead have stopped Dying, the Prince and his the ruling aristocracy have sealed themselves inside the massive palace-dome, and the subsequent power vacuum has left the door open for ambitious sorts to try and take advantage and/or seize control. Among those who seek more power are a cabal of necromancers and their Death Boys/Charnel Girls, Cleopatra, an absent fey cyborg, and (separately) her sadistic fey daughter. Also thrown into the mix are Richard Nixon (in young boy form on this world), a foppish but possibly deeper-than-he-looks aristocrat, Kurt Cobain, a few gods, an angel or two, a young noblewoman named Purity Kloo who wants to escape the dome because she is sick of being sealed in (and because a serial killer is on the loose), a plumber, Walt Whitman, and the pair who originally find Cooper: Asher and Sesstri, who seemingly seek to right the ship of the City, though their agendas are a bit murky from the start.

Whew. If that seems like a lot, well, it’s only because it is. Actually, a bit too much I’d say. Edison is certainly wildly inventive, and often in a wholly original fashion, which is not easy to do and I give him a lot of credit for the imaginative strokes of genius in here. But invention, even wildly imaginative invention, needs (in my mind) can’t be an end unto itself; it needs to be in service of story and character. And in both these areas The Waking Engine falls short.

The plot is a whirling jumble. Edison throws so much into the mix that the reader ends up leaping from one plot point to another with little time for development, sense of importance, or connective tissue. Too often plot events felt wholly arbitrary or contrived. Pacing is also an issue, with the first part of the book quite slow and the ending rushed. In between, there are times where we slow down too much for explanations/details or go too fast and gloss over too much.

The weakness in character exacerbates the plot issue, as we never learn much about any of the characters and so we don’t know what motivates them to do what they do. Without motivation, therefore, their actions or reactions seem wholly random. Cooper, meanwhile, is pretty much a blank slate who mostly gets carried along with events. He’s certainly one of the most passive main characters I’ve come across in some time, and his passivity, combined with his random impulsiveness, makes it difficult to become invested in what happens with him.

The city, in the fashion of the Urban Weird (is that even a term?) is meant to be another main character I think. Edison does mostly a good job of portraying a city slowly being choked off by abdicated leadership, overpopulation, indifference, ambition, jadedness, and the like. At times, though, he seems to try too hard for a sense of shock and seediness — the balance is almost there but not quite. And the pacing gets in the way as I could have done with more time lingering on aspects of the city. Despite that, the city is probably the best character in the entire work — most original, most compelling.

Beyond the setting, Edison’s prose is mostly another strength, often employing a highly charged and vivid poeticism, as in lines such as “a cataract of stairs” or when a building is described as, “withstand [ing] the ravages of dissipation like a queen in a tumbrel.” Though similar to his city descriptions, sometimes he tries a bit too hard and the writing comes off as overly ornate or contrive. But mostly he hits the mark and the prose is really what kept me reading despite the weaknesses in plot and character.

That and the originality of concept and design. There is much to enjoy in The Waking Engine, but I so wish a pre-reader or editor had asked him to save a chunk of his ideas for another novel or a sequel, streamline the plot, and focus as much on character as one setting. All the way through, I kept stopping to ask myself, “Do I like this book or not?” It’s not a question I’m used to asking more than once in a read, and usually when I do ask it of myself the answer is pretty obvious. But for the longest time in The Waking Engine I was never sure; I think because I was responding so strongly to the language and setting/premise. And maybe part of me was hoping that if the weakness in plot and character was negating my enjoyment of language and premise, that maybe Edison would pull off a good ending and leave me tipped on the good side. Unfortunately, the ending was disappointing in several ways. Having finished it, and thought more about it than I typically need to, I find it hard to recommend, though perhaps you should consider that I’m a bit more torn about it than usual.

Publication Date: February 11, 2014 Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die. Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found. Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker. Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse. Richly imaginative, David Edison’s The Waking Engine is a stunning debut by a major new talent.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. Hmmm. Sounds like the Riverworld series did it better. A couple of sentences there made me think of Felix Gilman, and made me want to dig out Thunderer and Gears of the City.

    • Michael Voss /

      A Riverworld comparison/contrast doesn’t really apply well here, imo. The two settings foster very different resurrection scenarios. In farmer’s books, the vast majority of resurectees are from various eras on Earth and frequently grouped together as such, and there are multiple quests to either conquer parts of the River or to find it’s headwaters and purpose. That’s one reason it takes several books to explore that world. In Edison’s novel things are a lot more take-em-as-they come. Individuals mostly keep to themselves and simply adjust, with varying degrees of success, to the world they are dumped in, rather than seeking out truths about it. They adapt, rather than quest, and only come to assist one another when they realize the place they live is falling apart.
      Although I was similarly a bit disappointed in The Waking Engine, I gave it the full Three Stars, and Bill’s review actually reminded me of all the things I liked about it! So now I’d like to read it again. Given too many other books to read, however, I’m more likely to pick up another Edison volume first :-)
      Thanks for an excellent and insightful review, Bill!

      Mike

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