Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Rise of the Iron Moon


          Okay, so the rundown is as follows. There is a good book in Stephen Hunt's The Rise of the Iron Moon. Somewhere. When he isn't gleefully destroying the beautiful setting he spent two books building up, or borrowing liberally from Jules Verne and HG Wells. Said good book is hiding in a mass of strange narrative choices, long passages of debate and exposition, characters spending their time not fighting a superior force sweeping across the land, and some rather bizarre takes on Arthurian mythology. Also, as this is a concluding volume to the arc started in The Court of the Air, foreknowledge of which is required to read this book. 

                 The good bits are that when the book is going, it really gets going, Stephen Hunt's usual attention to detail and worldbuilding do shine through in places, there is a genuine sense of urgency to some scenes, and I like the way some of the bits do come together. Also, there are some fantastic plot elements. 

                 However, in the end, I cannot recommend this book to all but the most ardent of Hunt's fans, or those wondering about the ultimate fates of the characters from the first two books. Find it in the library, buy it if you find it used and plan on passing it off, but this one's for collectors and die-hard fans, and there are plenty of books that are time better spent.

More, as always, below.

"How much time do you need?"
"About five million years' worth."
"I'll buy it in the blood of our enemies."
- Purity Drake and Jackaby Mention

              I'd been tracking this book for a long time. I'd even almost bought it no less than three times when I found it in stores. And probably because I'd been tracking it over a long period-- either never seeming to have the money at the right time, or never being in the right place but having all the money I'd need-- I probably inflated its worth to me and its quality by anticipating it so much. I mean, I'd liked the first two books, surely the third, a steampunk science fiction novel that actually had its characters go to space would be a brilliant read worthy of the legacy Stephen Hunt put forward. So finally, when I found it on the shelves at The Strand, Christmas money from a dear relative* burning a hole in my pocket, I did what any rational person would do and grabbed it. 

               And at first, I was willing to go with it. Sure, it started off slowly, but it eventually picked up! And the heroes from other books, like Commodore Black and Coppertracks were there! But...well, read on.

                The Rise of the Iron Moon begins with Purity Drake. Purity is an inmate of the Royal Breeding House in the nation of Jackals, a large prison-cum-breeding facility used to house female Royalist prisoners so Parliament can breed them and have people to torture and humiliate through the ages. In Jackals, the royalty is more or less a symbolic scapegoat for all the ills the townspeople have, following a kind of fantasy-Cromwellian directive where Parliament and the House of Guardians have literally disarmed the king and turned him into a figurehead. When Purity suddenly receives a hallucination of fighting lizard-people with a silver trident, she accidentally kills one of her guards and escapes with the help of a young man named Kyorin who seems to talk without moving his lips. 

                  Kyorin and Purity wind up taking refuge from a troop of evil ape-like hunters in the confines of a building known as Tock House, a fortresslike mansion owned by Molly Templar, best-selling author and former defender of Jackals; Commodore Jared Black, a former pirate always one adventure away from retirement; and their steamman companion Coppertracks. In the ensuing chaos, weapons are drawn and a massive eight-barreled deck-sweeper is used to clear the monsters, but Kyorin is mortally wounded. He passes on his memories to Molly, who is now tasked with trying to find some way to stop the advance of the sinister Army of Shadows, an alien force.

              At the same time, Coppertracks uses an observatory to look upon Kaliban, the large red planet near Earth and finds that the hunter monsters are possibly coming from Mars, and that Kyorin is more than likely from there as well. 

And then things get weird.

            The Army of Shadows spreads across the land, and a large iron comet appears in the sky, orbiting around Earth. As nations are crushed and plans become desperate, it becomes clear that the Army of Shadows is more than likely going to be the clear victor of the war. But Molly, Purity, and their friends launch a desperate attempt-- one attempts to gain a weapon from the land, and the other attempts a dangerous voyage to Kaliban to strike at the heart of the Shadows. But even these might not be enough to quell the tide, and if the planet is destroyed by the unearthly Army at its doorstep, what will be left to reclaim?

                 So, first problem with the book: You see that description up there? Doesn't that sound cool? Doesn't that sound interesting? Now add about fifty to seventy pages of discourse and needless exposition into that story, as well as several-page descriptions of people who are going to be crushed, making it clear they're going to be crushed because, well, they're minor characters in a rehash of War of the Worlds with some From the Earth to the Moon mixed in. The first time I read of nations being crushed, it was wrenching. After that, though, it became sort of commonplace. The book has a few scenes that ramp up the tension, but lacks any sense of urgency or grace. It doesn't truly get going until about two hundred and twenty pages in, at which point the groundwork is laid and half the book is over. While some of those two hundred and twenty pages are setting information, most of them could be fairly streamlined. Describing what happens to the anarchist woman warriors of the Catosian free states really didn't need to be done, especially because they were overrun offscreen two pages later. The book progresses in fits and starts for the first half, and none of it particularly works.

                       Second, and I really hate that I have to get into this here, a lot of the characters are depowered or lacking in agency. Agency, for those who are not familiar with the term, is what happens when characters are allowed to make things happen instead of having things happen to them. Johannes Cabal from Johannes Cabal, for example, has a great deal of agency. Most of the things that happen to him are consequences from actions he's taken-- either direct consequences or indirect. He's not much of a "good guy", but he has initiative. And he definitely has agency. Hell, even some characters without agency can be interesting. Elijah Clearfather from Zanesville has a lot of things happen to him without him causing them directly or even understanding what's going on. He's also mainly come to the point he has because of the way he was born more than anything he does. But it's still a fairly intriguing journey with an interesting character**. But if the circumstances and the characters aren't interesting enough to sustain the journey, then lack of agency gets boring. It's like failing all your rolls during a roleplaying game. You might as well not do anything, because no matter what you do, the results will not matter. And when this happens in a book, the reader stops caring about the characters. 

                        So when it's set up beforehand that the characters are going to fall over several more times in the attempts, and nothing they do seems to match up with stuff actually going on, and rampaging not-Martians are going to kill a lot of people no matter what, it gets boring. And to add to this, the characters seem to be depowered from previous versions. Molly Templar, as I said, is no longer a resourceful woman with a ton of fight, but kind of a middle-aged author who yearns for adventure. Commodore Black is largely unchanged, but somehow seems less useful. Purity Drake spends a lot of the book not being useful, and then suddenly gets a massive power upgrade...only to suddenly and ruthlessly (and perhaps a bit arbitrarily) have the goalposts moved solely for the purpose of giving Hunt a climax that brings everyone together. Which is kind of sloppy plotting.

                          But there are bright spots. Rise of the Iron Moon again brings Hunt's details and world into beautiful focus, and there are some rousing scenes that resonate simply by reading them. There are fight scenes and twists and narrow escapes and many chapters in the second half end with a cliffhanger that kept me hooked into the story enough to see what happened page after page. And I'd like to tell you that for these moments, for this stretch of time, it was completely worth it. I'd really like to. But Hunt's control, which is usually very tightly focused on two storylines, is preoccupied with tying up all his works and closing this "phase" of Jackals, it would seem. But the goodbye seems half-hearted at best, and not really worth the time. 

                            So miss this one. It's got some good parts, and if you want to try it or you're a big fan of Hunt's other books, then by all means, find it. I'd suggest a library. Who knows, maybe I was just kind of unfair. But I can't recommend this. Read any of the other Court of the Air books instead. They're worth much more of your time.

- S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

- Hell's Horizon by Darren Shan
- Nocturnal by Scott Sigler
- City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte


*Hi, Uncle Grunny. Nice to see you.
** See also several characters in A Song of Ice and Fire. The lacking of agency bit. Whether or not they're compelling is kind of a reader-by-reader argument. 

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