God of Clocks by Alan Campbell
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
03 July 2009
About a third of the way into God of Clocks, one of the characters remarks:
"We've got two hundred men and a drunk of a god locked up in a fucking inn" (p. 129)
It is a casual remark, and the reader doesn't blink. This is a quiet day at the office for Campbell and his characters.
Before I get on to talking about what an exuberant, bloody and brilliant novel this is I need to first point out that God of Clocks is the final volume of the Deepgate Codex, concluding the trilogy that began with Scar Night (2006) and was continued by Iron Angel (2008). (There is also a related and now sold out novella, Lye Street (2008), from Subterranean Press.) And yet, I like it.
Trilogies are a disease. In an ideal world all novels would be standalones, but the fact we even have to call them "standalones" marks us out as skiffy trolls. The publishing logic is simple: why have a one book deal when you can establish your author as a brand and have them dole out multiple, discrete units of product in consecutive financial years? The problem comes when the balance sheet fantasy intersects with the world of creative endeavour. This is what Richard Morgan recently found when he started The Dark Commands, the contractually-required follow-up to The Steel Remains (2008): "I'd always talked a good fight about making each book in this trilogy a self contained novel, but it wasn't until quite recently that I realised how deeply satisfied I was with the ending of The Steel Remains." The consequence? "I started at least twice and then had to tear up what I'd written because it was some weak-assed shit." Needless to say in a lot of other cases weak-assed shit is exactly what we get, if we get anything at all (The Dark Commands has been delayed and it is hardly the only example of a fantasy novel to suffer this fate). Therefore it is nice to see Campbell knocking out entertaining commercial fantasy in a timeframe which means you can still remember what happened in the first book. That is not to say he entirely avoids the curse of the trilogy: structurally things do, inevitably, become baggier as the story progresses. He succeeds despite this.
Scar Night is a fairly simple story of deicide that stays tightly bound to the city of Deepgate and the surrounding desert. The city is dedicated to Ulcris—God of Chains, banished from heaven by his mother, Ayen—and as such is strung over an abyss on vast chains. Campbell brings this concept to life brilliantly and creates one of the great fantasy metropolises, an otherworldly yet heftily real presence that in many ways is the star fo the show. The city is haunted and hunted by Carnival, a millennia-old vampiric angel, who preys on the inhabitants every full moon. It is a mark of the sort of series we are dealing with that she turns out to be one of the good guys. Carnival is a rogue, but sixteen year old Dill is the last sanctioned angel, protected by his church-appointed bodyguard, Rachel. These are the characters who are going to stay with us on our journey. Much happens; in fact there is enough material in Scar Night alone to fill a trilogy. Instead Campbell destroys the city and Carnival drinks Ulcris dry.
Given the spectacular devastation he wrought at the end of the first book Campbell then did a remarkably good job of expanding his universe in a way that seemed natural rather than forced. In Iron Angel we discovered that Ulcris was only one of seven exiled brothers and that the world is much, much wider (and deeper) than just Deepgate. The industrial revolution is pleasingly unevenly distributed across the world, and there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in uncovering this patchwork of lands and cultures. You don't get the sense everything has been planned out in advance in great detail, but it does make sense. It certainly isn't weak-assed shit.
God of Clocks is more of the same, following straight on and continuing to play fast and loose with the niceties of pacing and structure. For example, Carnival spends a good chunk of books two and three being boiled alive in a pressure cooker aboard a gigantic airship. This is the sort of thing that happens in the Deepgate Codex. Luckily she is immortal, but she is still understandably pissed off when she is eventually released. Unbelievably some other characters have it worse. The aforementioned drunken god, Hasp, has hit the bottle because the King of Hell has banished him the mortal world, replaced his skin with glass leaving him one blow away from bleeding to death, and inserted a parasite into his brain which means he can be ordered to kill his friends. Poor Dill has died, been resurrected, had his body almost immediate usurped by a ghost, languished and then been hunted in Hell and starts God of Clocks as what can only be described as a gigantic infernal mecha. Inevitably character development suffers, given the size of the cast, the extreme changes they undergo and the scattershot approach Campbell takes to focusing on them, but it is hard to care too much about this when they are so vividly brought to life and the story is so ludicrously compelling.
At its most basic the grand story arc is that Menoa, King of Hell and bastard son of Ayen, is fighting—and winning—a war against his half-brothers (the original seven shrinking rapidly). Our motley collection of supernatural and superhuman characters are buffeted this way and that by the tides of this titanic battle. In this Campbell is perfectly happy to leave plot threads unattended for a considerable time. Sometimes he just abandons them entirely. Again though, it is hard to care when the awesomeness quotient is so high. For example, Cospinol, God of Brine and Fog and owner of the previously mentioned pressure cooker, has his monstrously vast airship towed around by John Anchor, the world's strongest man. In fact, John is so strong that he actually punches through the floor of Hell. That is pretty strong (and very awesome). Campbell then tops this by having him discover a submarine down there.
As you might have gathered Hell features prominently in the novel and blood drips from every page. No, actually that's not right: it gushes. God of Clocks is ludicrously violent; even being dead is no escape from having your face kicked in. It isn't particularly dark though. This is gleeful mayhem. It does make it a bit rich that Rachel is a morally conflicted assassin, but luckily she spends twice as much time snapping limbs as fretting about collateral damage. Subtlety is not the order of the day.
The novel takes its title from another god, Sabor. As his alias suggests his specialist subject is time and his castle only turns out to be a bloody time machine. It is at this point the typical reader response shifts from the WTF of "holy shit, did that just happen?" to the WTF of "erm, what just happened?." Hasp finds himself in the same boat :
Hasp spat on the floor. "This is all bollocks," he growled. "I don't understand a word of what you're both gibbering about." (p. 306)
With a film like Primer, you might well sit down with your graph paper and slide rule and try and actually work it all out. With God of Clocks, though, in this as in so much else, it is best to just go with the flow. In fact, you don't have much choice, the Deepgate Codex fairly drags you along. Campbell has achieved many impressive feats here beyond merely seeing through his publishing obligations in a timely fashion. He has written the fantasy equivalent of New Space Opera; widescreen baroque, indeed. He has produced a series infused with gothic imagery but devoid of po-faced goth sensibility. He has populated it with cartoonish characters which the reader is nonetheless able to feel a great deal of affection for. Above all else he has achieved the holy grail of producing a novel that is unadulterated fun, a book that was written as entertainment and is unremittingly entertaining. A lot of other writers could take note.