Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Alchemypunk Review: 'The Demon of Cliffside' by Nathan Fierro

I spend a lot of time seeking out interesting new reading, but sometimes plums just drop into my lap. This was recommended to a reddit member seeking original, unusual fantasy and that it is. So original and unusual, in fact, that I have no idea how to categorise it. The blurb describes it as ‘alchemypunk’, and if I fully understood what that was, I might agree. The demon of the title is the central character, unnamed and of unknown species, living where she has always lived, once alone but now in the shadows of a human city. She has swirling alchemical markings on her body, long claws which can cut through metal or stone, and great strength and agility. She likes to walk on ceilings when indoors because humans never look up.

Her world is just as unusual. The city of Cliffside is built on some unfathomably high - mountain? plateau? - hard to say, but so high that clouds roil round below and cause massive rainstorms every night. Water, therefore is a major feature of the city, having to be piped and funneled away, but also powering machinery and transport. Recently, the inhabitants have discovered glowstone which powers alchemical lights and other machinery, and the ‘demon’ finds she has an unusual innate connection to the glowstone. She is, in some way, herself entwined with alchemical power.

The strength of the book rests, naturally, on the main character, and what a fascinating character she is. The author beautifully captures the ennui that inevitably arises from countless centuries of life, the detachment from the concerns of the humans who come and go, the ‘seen it all before’ cynicism. The ‘demon’ is truly alien, and I honestly never had any idea how she would behave under any given set of circumstances. In fact, the whole book was a long series of surprises, every turn of events bringing a new and revelatory twist. The other characters are less well-defined, but that’s entirely appropriate, since they are seen through non-human eyes.

The ending is page-turningly dramatic, and everything comes together very well. My only minor grumble is that parts of it seem a little too ‘magical’, as the ‘demon’ very quickly discovers and masters a whole range of new capabilities at crucial moments. It’s not quite deus ex machina, since the essence was flagged up right from the start, but there is an element of with-one-bound-they-were-free. One more edit would have added a final polish, too.

This is a haunting and evocative story, with a fascinating lead character and a terrific setting. The city above the clouds, beset by storms, is one I would like to know more about, indeed the whole of this created world. The alchemy is not merely a sideshow, but the idea which underpins the whole book. I’ve never read anything like this before, but I loved every moment of it. I agonised over the rating for this one, because of the slightly over the top ending, but I enjoyed it so much I'm going for the full monty. Five stars. Highly recommended for anyone looking for fantasy that breaks away from the more conventional tropes.

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