Back in Grade 7, we studied short stories and storytelling. We covered Freitag’s Pyramid: introduction, inciting force, rising action, crisis/climax, denouement, and resolution. We studied The Most Dangerous Game, and we listed the different types of conflict: man vs man, man vs himself, man vs nature, etc. It’s a simplistic way to analyze literature, but it does provide a good foundation to build upon in later years, once you have the ability to make more nuanced observations. I still remember it this day, and drew upon it as I considered how to first cover short stories with my sixth form students! And, reading Roil, all I can think about is man versus nature. The eponymous phenomenon that threatens the twelve cities of Shale is a fierce manifestation of nature, a rejection of the mechanical hubris that humans in this world have used to remake it for their purposes.
This isn’t the most straightforward of books to follow. In both setting and style, it reminds me a little of China Miéville’s work. Trent Jamieson doesn’t quite replicate Miéville’s truly wondrous sense of the weird, but he comes close. Roil is a good case study for the debate of where to demarcate the line between fantasy and science fiction, and it demonstrates that sensible people will eventually conclude it’s difficult, nigh impossible, to draw such a line. The atmosphere of this book is decidedly fantasy, in a dark, swashbuckling sense. The technology is almost steampunk, with fantastic airships and moving carriages and cannons and guns that shoot ice. Oh, and trains. Good, old-fashioned trains. And a world-controlling Engine.
The Engine of the World is one of the most interesting parts of this book, even if it doesn’t get that much page-time. It ostensibly is the reason the Roil has not expanded as much or as fast as it could have. The Engine (which seems to be some kind of dimensional gateway on its best days) held it in check in the past. Now the Roil is on the march again, and the remaining cities of Shale are desperate enough to contemplate using it. But the only one who might be able to do so, the only sane architect of the Engine left alive, has escaped their custody.
I didn’t have the easiest time getting to know the main characters. Truth be told, I’m not sure I know them even now. Their names spring to mind easily enough, but if you asked me about their parentage, their motivations, their story arcs, I’d be hard-pressed to discuss them at any length. Roil is one of those works that skilfully disposes of exposition, preferring to establish its world through hints in dialogue, epigraphs, and the occasional epistolary evidence. It makes for a more intriguing story; I’d really like to spend more time in this world and get to know its people. But I didn’t get too close to them this time.
Hence, I find it difficult to really highlight any specific part of the book. There is no subplot that jumped out at me, no moment of redemption that moved me to tears, no triumph that inspired a cheer or laughter. Half the time I wasn’t sure what was going on, and the other half of the time I knew what was going on but didn’t necessarily understand its importance. For me, the most intriguing mystery was what Cadell wanted to do to the Engine of the World and how it would help them beat the Roil. The fact that David picks up Cadell’s mantle to complete the mission, with very little exposition explaining what was going on, doesn’t clear much up.
Jamieson’s world of Shale is one that intrigues me. I’d like to learn more. But he doesn’t give me enough to go on, enough to make me care about the insane conflict we land in the middle of at the beginning of Roil. It’s one thing to come up with an intense story featuring zombie-like creatures and a world-spanning phenomenon that wants to eat your cities; it’s another to present that story in such a way as to sustain the reader’s interest. In the end, Roil just didn’t leave much of an impression on me, as this somewhat over-generalized review probably demonstrates.