Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The God Engines

Novella by John Scalzi

It was time to whip the god.
Easily the best opening line on either this year's Nebula or Hugo ballot.

This novella is John Scalzi's first attempt at Fantasy and it's definitely a success. I prefer this to his science fiction books, and rather than "high fantasy", The God Engines is what Scalzi calls "dark fantasy". It's a horror/fantasy hybrid set mostly on a spaceship. Which I suspect is much more to my liking.

Captain Tephe commands the Righteous, a Ship of the Line in the space fleet of a galactic empire level theocracy. The title of the novella is meant literally: rather than some kind of Phlebotinum, the ships and their FTL capability are powered by the enslaved gods of conquered civilizations.

The story opens with the god engine of the Righteous acting up. After disciplining it, they are called back home and assigned a high priority, top-secret mission. This is where the focus moves away from the fantasy worldbuilding to the simmering menace beneath pretty much everything, eventually progressing to all-out horror. The return to the ship after being assigned the mission marks the boundary between mediocre story with an interesting setting and can't-put-it-down, finish-in-one-night horror story with some points to make about trust in your superiors and blind faith in general.

I don't want to reveal specifics, but there are several major world-shifting revelations, all of which are foreshadowed but still surprising. As the whole tone of the story would lead you to believe, the ending is not a happy one. But it is amazing. The last chapter is what makes the story for me and in that sense, despite the length, this novella lives up to Edgar Allen Poe's definition of a short story in that it is all about one big effect (and that I, at least, read this is one sitting, albeit a long one).

That said, surprise and revelation aren't everything, the tone still creates a nice horror effect and The God Engines is equally enjoyable on a second reading.

The theme is really one of the folly of blind faith and how, even still, people cannot let go of it. Definitely some material worth thinking about once you know the whole story of how the world works.

I've seen some criticism of the characterization and perhaps the secondary characters are underdeveloped, but not to the detriment of the story and not any more than is justified given the short length. Tephe and his obnoxious priest rival are quite well drawn, to the point where captain Tephe takes a course of action towards the end of the story that never would have occurred to me, and I find it completely believable for his character. A flat character would have me blaming the author for manipulating things for the sake of plot, but this feels natural.

A note on the physical book: I really like everything about it. The dust jacket art, the page design, the paper and especially the four pieces of internal artwork. Scattered through the book there are four full-page illustrations of key scenes. They are well drawn and look good in the book, they just fit in well. The scenes chosen are good ones to illustrate and three of four are in the first half, where illustration aids in the worldbuilding. I think they are a nice touch and between all these factors, this book has convinced me to buy more things from Subterranean Press in the future.

While I was apprehensive for the first half of the novella, given some clunky dialogue and far too much exposition, things were interesting enough to keep me reading. The later half more than made up for the weakness of the beginning. The menacing sealed-evil-in-a-can feeling of the Righteous's god justified the blurb on the back comparing this to Lovecraft and was impressive in itself. The conclusion went on to top my expectations. 4.5 out of 5 and my favorite for the Nebula novella category.

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