Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Trent Jamieson


Global warming is bad enough, but what if the force turning your world into a furnace were sentient and malevolent. This is the Roil, a growing cloud that rolls hungrily over the land of Shale, consuming whole cities and wiping out everything living in its path. Inside it heat-loving Roilbeasts swarm and multiply, alien and incomprehensible and poison to all human life.

The soggy city of Mirrlees on Weep may be far from the Roil, but it's overrun in its own way and suffering from its own variety of decline. Rival political factions wage bloody campaigns, whilst the rain is slowly but inexorably drowning the city and turning it into a rotting swamp. David Milde is a young drug addict forced to run for his life when the Council Vergers put him on their hit list. These part-human thugs have already killed his father, and the political situation is worsening as the persecution of members of the Confluent Party reaches fever pitch.

Also at boiling point is the city of Tate to the south, surrounded on all sides by the Roil. Its ice cannons and high technology have been holding back the heat and darkness of the Roil for years, but something goes wrong when a new weapon is tested. Margaret Penn is forced to flee for her life in a small vehicle as her city is invaded. Meanwhile Medicine Paul, an ex-surgeon turned activist, is trying to evade the Vergers while David has joined up with the mysterious John Cadell and is moving south away from the Vergers but towards the Roil.

There's a heavy feeling of inevitability about this novel, of decline and destruction and the end of days. The main characters are nearly always running or fighting off something awful, whether it's the dragon-like Vastkind, or Roilbeasts, or the strange creatures in the forests and swamps, or more human dangers. The range of threats they face is impressively inventive. This is a world like no other science fiction universe I've yet read, and to begin with it's a little overwhelming as we're introduced to quite a few unfamiliar terms and creations. Shale is a modern world in terms of its technology, moulded by Engineers in some dim and distant past, but their high technology has developed a sheen of magic for a civilisation that has forgotten a lot of its history and science. A handful of Old Men provide one of the last links with this past, but they are dangerous and inscrutable people with something of the vampire about them. There are also zombie-like people whose minds have been taken over by entities from the Roil known as witmoths. Between all this, the winged Cuttlefolk and the part-bird part-plane Aerokin, Trent Jamieson has created a very original alien landscape with horrors and wonders around every corner. The tension is high as the main characters are forced to make narrow escape after narrow escape and to test their limits in the struggle to survive. And all the while there's a feeling of a net closing in around them as the Roil grows and extends its reach around the remaining human habitations.

However this high tension is also one of the book's weaknesses, for all that it makes for a lot of action, because there comes a point when the protagonists need to stop running and show us what they stand for, and this point doesn't come soon enough. They do seem interesting characters, but since they all spend a lot of time reacting to disasters and attacks we learn more about their survival abilities than we do about other aspects of their personalities. The story also ends inconclusively. Although everything changes for the characters by the end, part one of The Nightbound Lands does leave readers hanging, with everything still to be resolved in the sequels. Nevertheless I liked the way Shale reflects the unease of our own unstable and overheating world with its oblivious deniers, political schemers and sense of impending ruin, and this book has left me intrigued about how Jamieson's curious world will end.

3rd October 2011

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Science fiction

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson