No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, June 02, 2008

#24: The Ninth Circle -- Alex Bell

The Ninth Circle brings together angels, assassins and amnesia: it's part thriller and part dark fantasy and the two don't always blend well together. Protagonist Gabriel Antaeus wakes in a Budapest apartment one hot summer day, not knowing his own name or recognising his reflection. There's a huge sum of money on the kitchen table and a complete but unpublished manuscript, apparently by Gabriel himself, purporting to be a theological study of Dante's Hell.

Trying to reconstruct his lost life, Gabriel befriends pregnant teenaged neighbour Casey and cosmopolitan ex-theologian Stephomi. Both have something to offer him in terms of self-knowledge; both have parts to play in the larger tale that's playing out around them. Two tales, in fact: a grandly Miltonian epic of good and evil, and a more mundane story of international skulduggery. Gabriel is the axis round which both pivot, but they don't mesh as well as they might.

I read The Ninth Circle for review (which I'll link from this post when it appears), and doubt I'd have picked it up otherwise -- though it's apparently the focus of a major marketing campaign, perhaps because the author is 'frighteningly young and talented'. She has potential, but I didn't find this an especially good read. My advance review copy contained multiple errors and typoes that should have been picked up by a competent proof-reader: 'pouring' over manuscripts, for example. The characterisation feels flat: Gabriel's amnesia explains his current lack of depth but there's a sense that there was never much more there. Casey only comes to life when she's a mouthpiece for Gothic and alternative teens everywhere. Stephomi, with his games and secrets and his coruscating humour, is probably the most interesting of the three major characters. There are some imaginative twists and the pacing is good, but the prose is lacklustre, and sometimes tries too hard to be poetic.

(I've been reading quite a bit of fanfiction lately, cherry-picking the best: most of that was better-written than this novel.)

I hate to slam a young writer's first book, but it is possible to publish too soon in one's career. I'm very glad I didn't manage to get my first completed novel into print!

EDIT, 01 AUG 08 my review at Strange Horizons

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