I won a copy of Roil in a recent giveaway sponsored by Erik Lundqvist and thought that I should read and review it1. Erik was very positive in his review, but I’ve been burned by Angry Robot before. Of the five Angry Robot books I’ve read this year, one was good, one was poor (Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets – it’s on the TBRASP pile) and the rest were rubbish so let’s see if Roil can do any better.
The book opens with seventeen year-old David Milde witnessing the murder of his father and being forced to go on the run. It’s not a particularly original opening but David happens to be a drug-addict which makes for an interesting spin albeit one that results in a protagonist that spends the majority of the book running from place to place being told what to do and unable to think for himself. Moving on, our next protagonist is Margaret Penn, the daughter of the world’s most famous scientists and on a quest of vengeance after the Roil destroys her home of Tate.
What is the Roil? A superstorm full of monstrous creatures hungry for flesh and heat that is slowly but surely devouring the world of Shale. Ingenious endothermic weapons have held off the Roil’s advance for a time but the only thing that can stop it for good is the Engine of the North, a mythical device that Margaret intends to activate. Enter John Cadell, sent by the allies of David’s father to protect him, and one of the eight Old Men who built the Engine over four thousand years ago. He activated it once before to stop the Roil, but fears what may happen if it is activated again.
Roil is not an easy book to get into. The first half is made up of David getting high and whinging about being dragged around by Cadell whilst Margaret attempts to escape the Roil in a steam-powered car that goes at about two miles per hour. Jamieson switches between his three protagonists so frequently that it’s difficult to form an emotional attachment to any of them, thus in an attempt to get a grip on the book one must concentrate on the world itself. Shale is an intriguing creation but damn do you have to work hard for it. What eventually amounts to a surfeit of ideas is parcelled out somewhat meagrely in the form of the epigrams that open each chapter, made up of a mix of past and future histories alongside political memoirs, folk rhymes and other such miscellany. A few of these are effective but the majority add a confusing layer of detail, spoil the coming chapter or are just hilariously bad, such as the Quarg Hound riff on Blake’s “The Tyger” or the quote taken from a book titled “My Brother The Verger” which sounds like a Jerry Springer Show episode.
Other gaps in our knowledge are gradually filled by Cadell in his exchanges with David. That is before Cadell lays it all out for him. And when I say “all”, I mean all. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, Jamieson decides that a third of the way into the book is a great place for a spectacularly clumsy info-dump on a par with the end of an early Alastair Reynolds novel. It’s around a page of exposition that still makes me wince when I think about it, but confirms to the enquiring reader that Shale is a colony planet and that Cadell along with the other Master Engineers terraformed the planet and inadvertently created the Roil.
The epigrams and occasional info-dumps aren’t the only things that hurt the world-building. It’s also hampered by a severe lack of description of, well, anything. We only get a decent idea of what David’s home of Mirrlees looks like near the end of the book when he passes over it from the air, even though it is Shale’s main city and where most of the political skullduggery occurs. And what of the Roil and its Roilings/Roilbeasts? One can take a reasonable stab at what a Quarg Hound looks like, but what about Endyms (they fly and have large eyes and leathery wings), Vermatisaurs (it’s big and flies but does it have six mouths or twelve? Your guess is as good as mine because the author wasn’t able to decide) and Hideous Garment Flutes?
This brings me to a more general problem with the writing. It’s an apocalypse so exaggeration is par for the course, but the prose in Roil is grandiloquent to a fault. People constantly howl (there’s even a “vast architectural howl” on page 100), soldiers and iron beams crash by Remic-style, Aerokin (living airships) possess flagellum that twitch in “ceaseless hungry jactitation”2 (p15), noise is characterised by “hums and tintinnabulations” (p279) and thunder is “deliquescent” (p280). It’s as if Jamieson thought that breaking out the thesaurus every so often was a quick way of improving his prose. Of course there is a preponderance of Places And Names Beginning With Capital Letters, a trend in genre fiction that is bloody irritating and no substitute for actually telling us what these places and things look like.
Two days ago a bullet-shaped balloon drone flew over the Jut and the wall, passed beneath the Four Cannon of Willowhen Peak and vast and twisting buttresses of the Steaming Vents, and landed on the forecourt of Tate’s Breach Hold Chambers, meeting place of the Council. (p18)
Then there’s the issue with the actual names that Jamieson uses. Well, two actually. The first is a personal thing, in that I think that genre novels should avoid using real world names, although I’m willing to make an exception for the use of famous scientists and sf novelists to name ships, cities and colony worlds. On Shale we don’t have Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, we have epigrams by a chap named Deighton, Downing Bridge, the town of Mirrlees 3 and Magritte Gorge. I appreciate that coming up with names for people and places can be difficult but this kind of thing ruins any sense of immersion. The other problem is that there are numerous quality control issues, what with the aforementioned Hideous Garment Flutes and a portmanteau created from “door” and “orifice” that is enough to make anyone who likes the English language fly into a rage (an educated guess should suffice, but it’s on page 247 if you must know as I refuse to type it out4).
Once David and Margaret finally meet, the plot actually starts moving but it’s at this point that more characters get thrown into the mix. Medicine Paul (clumsy naming strikes again – he’s a former surgeon turned politician) and Stade take their turns at the narration helm and their addition is detrimental to the focus of the novel. Cadell is subsequently bumped off, passing on his nanotech powers on to David, and thus David gains some agency at the cost of the book’s most interesting character, but not before Cadell gets his Crowning Moment of Awesome whereby he jumps out of an airship with a rope around his waist and proceeds to take out another by punching out the windshield of its cabin. Jamieson then does his best to undermine this achievement by setting up a love triangle between David, Margaret and airship pilot Kara (Jade – not to be confused with Mara Jade Skywalker) which just screams “I’m a shit YA trope”.
Night’s Engines is set to complete the Nightbound Land duology and with the first novel cack-handedness out of the way, it could potentially build on Roil‘s strengths and finish the series well, even with the niggling feeling that the story could have easily told in a single installment if Jamieson had binned the epigrams and trimmed the other POV characters. At any rate, the GOOD-BAD ratio for Angry Robot is slanted heavily towards BAD and I’m going to have to be much more cautious about their books in future.
1 Hush those of you muttering about the Clarke Award shortlist. I’ve actually read Zoo City so that’s on the to-be-reviewed-soon pile, as opposed to the to-be-reviewed-at-some-point pile, the to-be-read-then-reviewed pile or worse yet, the to-be-read-and-reviewed-when-I-find-the-damn-book pile.
2 To save you looking it up, it’s a medical term that means “the restless tossing of the body in illness”.
3 In the extras at the end of the book, Jamieson explains how he originally named his cities after authors he admires (Tate was originally called Bishop after K.J. Bishop) but left Mirrless because he thought that a city should be named that. It’s a nice thought but still a bad choice.
4 Oh all right, it’s “doorifice”. I hope you’re happy now.