The Fade by Chris Wooding
Published by Gollancz, October 2007
ISBN: 9780575077003 (HB); 9780575076990 (TPB)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Imagine a world below: a world where cavernous cities and subterranean lakes exist, where caverns are the size of a country, houses are made of skyscraper-size fungi, where luminous lichen light your way between them. Cultures use stalactites and stalagmites as weapons in shard cannons and make armour as strong as steel out of subterranean plant sap.
Here is the imaginative world of Chris Wooding’s latest stand-alone fantasy, The Fade.
It commences in a world split by war, in the middle of an intense battle between two races, the Gurta and the Eskaran. As the story is told, Massima Leithka Orna, an elite Eskaran assassin of the Caracassa clan, is caught by the Gurta and put to work in Farakza, a prison-mine below the surface. Conditions, rather expectedly, are hard and unpleasant. Whilst carrying out her hard labour, Orna is also interrogated by Gendak, one of the scholar elite who routinely dissect the prisoners for chirurlogical experiments but seems more interested here in her espionage activities. At the same time, Orna plots an escape with the assistance of Charn, a blacksmith, Nereith, a carnivorous Khaadu, and Feyn, a Sun-Child, one of the strange ‘Sura’Sao that live above ground.
This daring escape leads Orna to the surface of her world but then eventually returning below to the world that she knows: an underground world run by gangster-like Clans. Bonded to her boss, Ledo, for life, she soon realises that there is a dangerous game being played here. One that not only involves her but also her son, Jai, enlisted with the Eskaran Army, and also bonded for life in order to repay family debt. Orna, one of the best Eskaran assassins, wanders a risky line between the needs of her superior and the strange friendship afforded her by Ledo’s sisters, Liss and Casta.
This unusual creation is clearly the work of an experienced writer – in fact, this book makes Chris’s total to more than a dozen. His pedigree is clearly in evidence here. Having sharpened his skills in earlier work, this is a fully-fledged adult book worthy of your attention. Part escape novel, part travelogue, part a revenge-motivated fantasy, this energetic book, using revenge as a lead motif for the book, is engaging and fast-paced from the go.
Characterisation is clearly also a strength. The lead protagonist is a well-defined, though at times contradictory, female lead, whose first-person narrative traverses between sassy and deferential. Orna is a coldblooded killer, yet conflictingly also a wife and mother. These seemingly incompatible traits are reflected in a character whose surface cynicism belies a sensitive depth both sympathetic and horrified at the events that unfold. This world-weary cynicism and inner voice of the narrative are illustrated by well written and appropriate (if not to say expletive-filled!) dialogue. The direct yet expressive vocabulary helps the reader build views of an alien world.
The biggest problem for readers may be that the fairly short chapters flick forward and back through events, (starting with Chapter 30 going through to Chapter 39 and ending with Chapter 0!) both current and in the past. I found it fairly easy to follow without being too distracting, though I could see it being either enjoyable or frustrating to another reader.
What this does of course is maintain the narrative motion whilst simultaneously filling out the world of Callespa. Through the backstory, we see Orna’s earlier life as a slave, a musician, a mother and an assassin, her family and career, as well as the events of the present. Whilst not detracting from the main plot, it is an interesting development that fills in a bigger story in a relatively slim book.
In the same way, the worldbuilding, drip-fed through the events of the book, is also striking. Though not bowed by lengthy exposition, we visit cities and prisons, caverns and valleys. We have majestic cities in darkness, and landscapes in light. (The brilliant cover by Edward Miller does the book justice.)
What also worked for me here are the tensions and misunderstandings caused by the cultural differences of the two ideologically opposed races. Differences between Gurtan and Eskaran culture, though initially quite different, ultimately may be less than they appear. Though not always detailed, there’s enough to be intriguing for the reader.
Though a standalone book, there are elements left unresolved, though on balance the book is very satisfying. The ending has a nice twist. It is a book that covers a great distance and depth in a relatively short form. Lesser writers would have padded the plot; Chris deserves credit here and should be applauded for his hyper-refined narrative.
In summary, a book that pleased me much more than I initially thought it would. Those who, like me, loved Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination or Steph Swainston’s Jant series (though this is a tad more straightforward) will find much to admire here.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, October 2007