Chasing Embers (A Ben Garston Novel) - James Henry Bennet

The last of the dragons hidden within society, passing as human and trying to live out his life until he becomes embroiled in a mystery? Count me in. Plotwise, this book should have been right up my alley, but unfortunately, it just didn't work for me. If I were forced into conciseness, I think I'd describe Chasing Embers as a take on Neil Gaiman's American Gods written in the style of Wilkie Collins. While it may be sacrilege and I may end up tarred and feathered for it, I must admit that I'm not a fan of American Gods. I do generally enjoy Wilkie Collins, but while the Victorian era does much to excuse his fraught verbosity, the careless sexism, and the thoughtless xenophobic exoticism of foreign cultures, it's rather less understandable in a modern novel. As with all my negative reviews, I'm going to lay out my problems with the book because the things that drove me nuts may be unimportant or even positives to other readers.

 

The most notable feature of the book is probably the overblown style. A few examples that might demonstrate why I initially thought it intended to be some sort of spoof:

"Flames sputtered. Steer horns flew. Smoke fouled the air. A girder screamed, busted outward. The city peered in through the breach, her distant lights jealous of the fireworks. A hush washed over the bridge, a murmuring tide carrying prayers."

[About a ten-year-old] "Her sore feet tingled on stone and she moved forwards as if through water, a subtle magnetism drawing her on, the sense of little teeth nipping at her budding breasts. Ants swarming in her guts."

"White fire claimed him, closing around him like a cage. A brief, blinding fulmination and he was in the heart of the Star.

The star was falling, falling. The meteor shook off rock at the edge of space, a flaming Cinderella fleeing a ball."

"Blood streaked the horizon, congealing into an ugly purple, the dam of day broken by the encroaching penumbra, the night flooding in. In minutes, the moon had swallowed half of the sun. It was a black eye bordered by gold, scouring the sands with ominous portent. A minute more and it had obscured the sun completely, the sight a blazing ring in the sky, a flaring golden corona.

"Uncurling from his foetus of grief, Ben raised himself on his one good arm."

The sun blinked a ruddy eye, one moment near the horizon, the next half sunken under it. Like a ball released from a catapult, the moon escaped the temporal glue, then slowed in the heavens, continuing her voyage skyward."

The book also demonstrates a cheerful Victorianesque disregard for the proper use of punctuation and cheerfully substitutes em-dashes and semicolons for commas, colons for semicolons. Yeah, not my cup of tea.

 

Continuing the Wilkie Collins motif, we have a credulous starving native, exotic African magics, and quite imprecise Egyptian history--e.g. ushaptiu described as "bricks"-- as well as a rather Victorian attitude towards women. Women are repeatedly described as animalistic and controlled only by their passions. Those who aren't "all heart, fury bred from spurned love, vengeance from the pain of treachery" want to live out the nineteenth century feminine ideal: "She told him, through pretty tears, that she only wanted a normal life. Marriage. Kids. A future. In no particular order and with possible overlaps between roles to avoid spoilers, this book contains: a damsel in distress, a powerful and magnetic seductress who is the pawn of the man manipulating her, a woman who becomes utterly consumed by revenge against the man who done her wrong, a bunch of evil witches who use sexuality as a weapon, and, to top it all off, a refrigeratored female.

Yes, yes, Rose doesn't actually die, but she is so clearly refrigeratored, mutilated, and dressed as a princess in a tower.

(show spoiler)

The most over-the-top offensive parts? When one woman is considered valuable, or "invested with power," as the book put it, solely because she is a receptacle for a man's sperm. Literal or metaphorical, a lot of the women end "opened up like a door", to be raped and used as emotional pawns. I had to push myself to keep reading, and I'm glad I did, because there is a certain amount of saving grace at the end.

I really loved that Rose turned out not to be dead and confronts Ben: "I am not... a prize." Yet even there Ben strips away some of Rose's agency by deciding that he can "save" her and "protect" her by staying away, making it his choice, not hers.

(show spoiler)

 

I also really didn't buy the basis of the worldbuilding. The basic scenario: King John got all the magical Remnants to make a pact that would leave exactly one of each of their kind in the world and push all the rest into endless sleep. Now, who on earth would agree to that, and in particular, who on earth would elect some leader as the only one to remain alive?

Leaving aside the fact that King "Lackland" John was a pathetic whinging scheming excuse of a king who managed to infuriate the Church, antagonize his populace to the point of war, and lose massive chunks of territory to the French, how on earth would a peace brokered with a weakling king of one measly little island become some sort of universal law to be obeyed by every mortal and immortal being all over the world? At that point, believe me, the sun definitely set on the British empire--on winter days, after less than ten hours. It's that sort of thoughtless exceptionalism that really gets on my nerves.

 

As as surely become clear by now, this book was not for me. I really wish it had been--it sounded so perfect. However, it was not meant to be. If you are more tolerant than me, or if a cross between Wilkie Collins and Neil Gaiman sounds fun to you, dear reader, then Chasing Embers may be worth a look.

 

~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my (depressingly) honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~


Cross-posted on Goodreads.