Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, First Round :: The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin vs. The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine

The Pillars of HerculesThe Darkening Dream
We are down to the last first round match of the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books. Our final two entrants are The Darkening Dream by Andy Gavin against The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will complete the second round of the Battle of the Books.

The Darkening Dream: Mascherato trade paperback, January 2012, 404 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. This is an independent book, but Andy Gavin has rather more credibility than the typical self-published author. He is already an accomplished storyteller in the medium of video games, having co-created such best-selling games as Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter, and he has taken a professional approach to his novel, including commissioning cover art from top-flight artist Cliff Nielsen.

The Darkening Dream is a vampire novel set in Salem, Massachusetts in 1913. The heroine is Sarah, a scholarly young Jewish woman, who in the opening pages of the book meets a charming Greek immigrant. Sarah and her friends are about to stumble into an ancient conflict involving vampires, warlocks and other magical creatures, which somehow centers on the trumpet of the Archangel Gabriel.

The Pillars of Hercules: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 387 pages, cover art by Daren Bader (not to be confused with Paul Theroux's travel book of the same title). Night Shade isn't saying so, but I believe David Constantine is a pseudonym of David J. Williams, author of the well-received Autumn Rain Trilogy, beginning with The Mirrored Heavens. Those books were science fiction, but The Pillars of Hercules is fantasy/alternate history set circa 330 B.C.

Alexander the Great has embarked on a series of conquests, which is indeed what he was doing at that time, but he receives orders from his father, who in our world was dead by then, and he is opposed by a thriving Athenian Empire, which is not how our history books remember matters. Oh, and there is magic and surprisingly advanced technology. I want to call this "bronzepunk," because that term has a nice ring to it, but really we're in the Iron Age here, not the Bronze Age. As the book begins, Alexander is invading Egypt, currently controlled by Athens.

The Battle: The openings of these two books present an interesting contrast in styles. The Pillars of Hercules is bold and brash from the outset, while the beginning of The Darkening Dream is relatively understated. There is one four-page scene of a man being killed by a vampire, but aside from that we watch Sarah chatting with her parents and friends and going for a nice picnic.

I enjoyed these scenes with Sarah, and I find her an interesting character, a brilliant young woman in 1913 who fears she will soon have to give up her studies to settle down and start making babies. But this quiet opening is rather overwhelmed by the all the excitement at the start of The Pillars of Hercules. In 25 pages, David Williams/Constantine gives us drunken mercenaries, a mysterious witch serving an elegant lady, a vast fleet of Greek warships aflame, an Egyptian city being sacked, an escape through an ancient aqueduct, an unexpected crocodile attack, a race on an anachronistic powerboat, Alexander the Great cheered by a throng of Egyptians, all followed by a dose of political intrigue in an ancient world whose history has varied significantly from our timeline.

To compete with all this, Andy Gavin needed to pack a wallop in his four-page vampire scene, but that was the one scene in the opening chapters of his book that didn't work for me. The victim is a total redshirt, a throwaway character dropped into the story just to have someone to kill, and the attack is short on suspense, partly because we never see the killer. All the scene accomplishes is to signal that we're in a vampire story, but that just means the main character's worries about whether she is to be married off will soon become trivial, as she instead focuses on staying alive.

There is a lot more action in the opening of The Pillars of Hercules and Williams/Constantine pulls it off better. And then when the action slowed, I found the political machinations among Alexander's advisors interesting -- as soon as I put down the book I was on the Internet comparing Alexander's actual history to what has occurred in the novel. I want to read more.


The Pillars of Hercules advances to meet Elizabeth Bear's Range of Ghosts in the second round.

The second round begins next week, with Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint taking on The Scar by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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