Throughout Scar Night, Alan Campbell occasionally manages to create pockets of drama and suspense, but he fails to sustain this atmosphere for the duration of the book.
The city of Deepgate, suspended above an abyss by chains, is an interesting concept in and of itself. To go along with this temporal construction, Campbell has created an interesting ecclesiastical mythology centred around the abyss and what haunts its depths. The people of Deepgate believe that one's soul resides in one's blood, and they throw their dead into the abyss to send their souls to "Ulcis, god of chains", who was kicked out of heaven (which doesn't seem to trouble them).
Unfortunately, the descriptions of Deepgate fail to do justice to its concept. We learn that it's suspended by numerous chains and (somehow), ropes. There's a League of Ropes and a Temple of Ulcis somewhere near the middle, as well as a sagging bit called the Depression. However, the geography of the city is vague. Maps and minutiae may not be required, but Campbell never seems to capture the grandeur of the scenery by expanding his narrative scope. This same problem plagues his characterization.
My second issue with Scar Night centres around its characters. To Campbell's credit, most of the characters are three-dimensional, with understandable motives. Yet his narrative scope is so narrow that I often felt like I was missing pieces of information that would make me better appreciate the characters, particularly Carnival. What was with the prologue? I get what happened, but why?
Similarly, while we get a little bit of exposition toward the end about Rachel's past and her reasons for joining the Spine, she seems like a rather neglected sidekick, burdened with the unfortunate Power of Heart. It's admirable that Campbell decided not to turn her into a kickass Action Girl, but it would be nice if she were good at something. Because, of course, Dill is rather useless, which is why during the climax, the psychotic Carnival is the one who does most of the fighting. At one point I thought Dill was finally going to step up and take charge, seize upon his full potential. Much like Rachel, unfortunately, Campbell has severely limited Dill's competence.
Devon the Poisoner, arguably the main antagonist of Scar Night, has exciting motivations. Unfortunately, his villainy falls victim to pacing issues. Toward the end of the book, he has to single-handedly convince the barbarian nomads--who hate him with a passion--to align themselves with him and march on Deepgate. His success is hasty and suspect; it feels like the nomads were convinced more because "it was necessary for the plot to advance" than because Devon is particularly persuasive.
As I mentioned above, there were moments of clarity where it felt like Campbell had hit the perfect note. This usually happened whenever Presbyter Sypes was on stage. He was probably my favourite character, a pragmatist with impeccable integrity. Sypes also serves as the vehicle and mouthpiece for most of Campbell's shocking revelations (which I won't spoil) about the truth surrounding Deepgate's religion and the god of chains.
Scar Night piqued my interest and held it until the climax, exactly what a good novel should do. A great novel goes one step further, sustaining interest until the very end and leaving one hungry for more. While I think I'll probably seek out the sequel, I'm not exactly ravenous for more Alan Campbell.
The back cover of this mass market paperback edition is fully laden with blurbs from authors, many of whom I recognize: Sharon Shinn, Sarah Ash, Scott Lynch, and Hal Dundcan. On the front cover, a blurb from the Publishers Weekly says: "Campbell has Neil Gaiman's gift for lushly dark stories and compelling antiheroes." I can see the "dark stories" part, but "compelling antiheroes"? Do they mean Carnival, or did I miss something? And I disagree with the comparison with Neil Gaiman.
The plethora of praise should raise a flag among canny readers. Scar Night is certainly a good read, but not as good as the hype would have you believe.