“‘When we die, we don’t cease to exist or turn into shimmering motes of ectoplasm or purple angels or anything else you may have been brought up to believe. We just…go on living. Someplace else.’”
I oftentimes feel like I can tell when a book is objectively good or not. Yes, there are personal biases and selective tastes that make this wrong, but on a general level, I like to think I know what makes a good book. The problem with The Waking Engine is not wholly that it has its flaws, but that the style just wasn’t for me. It’s a good book, in certain aspects, but more than that, it’s a type of New Weird that is not the bizarre I usually love. It’s an absurd niche in that subgenre, and I just couldn’t take it.
If you’re lost, bear with me.
Edison’s debut starts off with the main character, Cooper, waking up in a strange land. He’s disoriented, as is the reader. As the man stumbles along on his journey, we learn that there is no Heaven and Hell, unless metaphorically you think there is. Instead, people are reborn over and over again. At the end of their tale, they come to the City Unspoken. Here, people come to Die for the last time. Problem is, the gate is clogged, and a disease is spreading through the streets, causing pilgrims to turn into brainless zombies. The people that find Cooper believe he is the savior, simply because he has a belly button, a scar that disappears after your first death. Because of this, they think he isn’t dead.So he’s going to save the world, by golly.
And that’s the easy part to grasp. Throw in cyborg-fey (which is probably the coolest idea of the book), gray-skinned folks, whores that kill themselves for profit, a tower where religions go to die, and psuedo-vampires that feast on pain, and you have the basis for the world-building. Yeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said this was a strange land.
Edison’s imagination is by far his best tool. But I would argue his prose is just as wonderful. It’s poetic, verbose, and lovely. He can capture a scene almost perfectly. This transfers greatly with his ideas, letting the reader see them easily. However, Edison has a big problem with overwriting scenes. He’s borderline pretentious. There are times when my patience was tested. His love of the written word can, at times, slow down the pace tremendously. I enjoyed walking in his mind, but not having to make mine work so much.
Even though he explains very well, he either does too much or too little. Because of this, your gray matter is constantly being taxed. It doesn’t make for a pleasurable ride. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing; I just wasn’t enamored. I wanted a middle of the road approach. Maybe something intelligent but subtle. Instead, Edison released a purple elephant on us and said it was a giraffe.
This ability to write craziness often translated to me becoming lost. The ideas can become unfocused and opaque. But when Edison does hit the mark, he does it so well.
“What he saw seemed to be the very idea of a city, barnacled and thick with itself.”
His worst execution might be the plot. The first half really shows his weakness in plotting. Nothing really happens, and if it does, it comes out of nowhere with no real motivation or foreshadowing. The beginning creates a sense of build-up, but that goes nowhere. The characters don’t make decisions. Edison does for them. As the story progresses, it doesn’t get better. The author juggles multiple subplots, creating tangents that are interesting in their own right (especially when we’re inside the Dome), but become tangled near the end. Edison doesn’t really unravel all of them, which hurts him.
I would say the worst thing Edison did in his first novel was try and be too ambitious. He tried to do too much, and ultimately missed the mark.
Nowhere else does this ring truest than with the characters. Besides Nixon, Purity, and the cyborg-fey, the majority of the cast don’t have any real motivation, or at least none that I could decipher. Cooper, in fact, is the worst of them all. He’s the most uncompelling protagonist I’ve read in a good while. Edison tried to go for an everyman, an anyman that the average Joe could attach to, but I don’t read to experience what would probably happen if the Chosen One was randomly picked off the streets and deposited in another dimension to save the day. I don’t like stupid and lost heroes. I want competence and drive. I was active characters. Cooper is anything but that. The outsider wasn’t done well. The execution was off.
But what saddens me the most is that Edison tries too hard to make the city into a character, and sacrifices the cast for it. The place is interesting, of course, but he needed to take time away from that and insert it into the characters. He didn’t.
While Edison’s debut The Waking Engine does a marvelous job of sketching out a city being overrun by the indifference and destruction of death, he fails miserably on execution. He has too many ideas, and not enough focus for them. I could read his writings all day long, that’s for sure, but I’d rather sit in one of his short stories than a bloated novel.
“His dog, Astrid—would she sit by the door, waiting for him, wondering why he never came back to her? She wouldn’t understand, just ache. The same when for Cooper as for those he’d left behind. No understanding, just pain and loss and a false promise of peace at the end.”
*I was given this ARC for my honest review.*