Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Vanishing Glow - Alexis Radcliff

A Vanishing Glow is Alexis Radcliff’s debut novel; it’s an interesting blend of fantasy – gods and kings, aristocrats and prophecies – and a more steampunk-esque aesthetic. It’s got a lot going on - there’s politics, brawls, stand-up swordfights, some nice character moments, and rather a lot of explosions.

The world that Radcliff gives us, the Federation of Ghavarim, is a complex one. Brought together at the close of a conflict a generation before, the disparate parts of the Federation chafe against each other, and against the rule of their High Sovereign. Whilst the nobles argue over power, and the direction of the federation, those beneath them in the hierarchy have other concerns. The West of the Federation is industrialising – setting up factories for everything and anything they can think of. The East is more resistant, and meets the introduction of factories, and the decline in traditional labour, with riots and the smashing of machines. It’s an economy reminiscent of Britain in the 1800’s, but with an important difference – the industrialisation is powered by a kind of magic.

We spend much of our time in the capital of the Federation, and Radcliff manages to convey the sense of a city struggling into modernity very well. That said, it would have been nice to see more of the city; it’s worth noting also that whilst the text is generally inventive, there’s a few parts of the environment that may feel familiar to long term fantasy readers – a criminal organisation running the underclass of the city. A young man brought to prominence against his will. On the other hand, these familiar spaces carry some unique stylistic flourishes, and they manage to defy expectations on enough occasions to keep things interesting. They certainly don’t register too strongly amongst a swathe of world-building that feels  distinctive and original. There’s some asides around the idea of marriage and morality as well, and it would be nice to see those explored in greater detail

From a character standpoint, we’re largely split between two protagonists. There’s the young hero, struggling to live up to family expectations, who gives us a view on the political situation and the broader scope of several actions. There’s also a young female sapper, who begins the text trying to become accepted into the military demolitions division, before things change  for her rather rapidly.
The hero-prince came off as slightly too self assured, too confident in his own righteousness. On the other hand, given the age of the character, this is entirely plausible. It did make some of the political scenes hard to read, watching other characters dance around our hero. The author gives us enough insight into the character that we can empathise with him, and get a handle on his personality, his beliefs, needs and expectations; I would have liked to see a few smaller shifts of character, as events unfolded, but as presented, he comes off as…well, heroic. Sometimes annoyingly so. But Radcliff isn’t afraid of showing the consequences of raw heroism, and those can be downright brutal – I hope to see more character shifts in a later book. Still, as presented, he’s consistent, and enjoyably straightforward to read.

The sapper is, from a character point of view, the one I found more interesting. She begins , from the reader point of view, as a blank slate, with a suggestion of a complex past. This is quickly joined by further character forming actions, and she becomes increasingly conflicted, Watching her journey, physical and mental, across the narrative was a pleasure – Radcliff presents someone able to change, who is both willingly and otherwise changed throughout the text. It helps that she’s pragmatic, and lacks any ostentatious heroism to go with her obvious basic decency. Her view, of the lower strands of society, outside the cities, is sympathetic, and her overall character is both entertaining and heartbreaking to read – the author’s done a good job here.
The supporting cast includes weary soldiers, men held together by magic fuelled machinery,  the occasional journalist, and the perhaps less rare killer. All seem to have enough room to contribute to the plot, and in some cases they get enough room to grow – our sapper’s companions are a case in point. On the other hand, I’d have been delighted if they’d had more room to grow.

The plot – well, as ever, I won’t get into detail for fear of ruining it. I will say that it ramps up relatively quickly. There’s a couple of interesting central mysteries (though I  managed to get ahead of one of them), and in trying to solve those, our protagonists and their supporting cast run into a great many problems. The politics is largely alluded to, rather than seen close up, but the mood of scheming flattery is spot on. The action scenes are fast-paced , and often explosive. The plot has some promise, and it delivers on that; the narrative was compelling enough to keep the pages turning, and I’m determined to give the next volume a try.

Is it worth reading? It’s a rambunctious and enjoyable piece of fantasy. It’s got some original ideas, and they flow together well, into a fascinating read. I’d like to see more, but that’s presumably what any sequel is for – so yes, pick this one up, it’s worthwhile.

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