Fogbound: Empire in Flames by Gareth Clegg

The talents of this author shine in his debut novel through the tangible world building and bevy of fascinating characters. We are thrown into a post-apocalyptic alternate London whose Queen Victoria lost the battle against Martian invaders. It’s a post-apocalyptic world, though, so the invaders are long gone, leaving behind devastation and strange plant life to trouble the survivors.

The world comes to life in both its familiar aspects and those that have been twisted beyond recognition. It absorbs the reader into a somewhat horrific steampunk environment only worsened by the entrenchment of Victorian Era class, wealth, and status struggles. I’ll admit it felt as though more than four years had passed since the invasion based on the radical social and structural changes. However, I remember seeing a TV special about how quickly all sign of humanity would vanish even considering a modern, overbuilt world and must concede the point.

The sense of place and interesting characters–whether an old boatman, a bounty hunter, or a somewhat befuddled inventor–kept me reading despite a slow build and delay in revealing a main plot to coalesce around. There were so many characters, whether given the point of view (POV) or just mentioned in passing, I started losing track of them, unable to figure out their place within the story. It’s often unclear whether they are there to aid or hinder, or even if they are main characters or random cameos. The trouble came when these extras resurfaced much later as just a name without context but the story expected you to know exactly who it was and what part they were involved with.

There were many POV characters in the beginning, increasing this issue, but once the viewpoint settled on Simmons for a long enough chunk, I started to make sense of some things. The greater plot is hidden from Simmons as well, though, so no help through his eyes. I found the way the POV allowed Simmons to force Bazalgette, the inventor, to simplify the purpose of his latest design was brilliant. Whether or not I would have understood the technical explanation, it would have slowed the narrative and dissolved into a technobabble info dump. This choice of the best perspective for the moment worked well, though Bazalgette gets his own POV at times.

The story is not written so you become a participant, but then neither are the characters in active pursuit of an aim for most of the book. More, they are going about their various lives, doing seemingly unrelated things, only to discover there’s a greater meaning they’ve been working toward in ignorance. This is an action thriller at times with Simmons stalking murderers through areas invaded by zombie-like dead then a weird melancholy celebration of the good old, pre-invasion times as well as an opium den of twisted dreams. The action worked for me in the short term while the melancholy helped build a deeper picture of the past and specifically of Simmons. The opium dreams only confused me even after I had learned enough to understand their actual meaning. The distinction between reality and dream is unclear even once you know what’s going on.

While part of me found the gotcha of twist after twist audacious, the rest felt frustrated by the lack of true seeding. I knew only enough to sort of make sense of the specific events after they came about, but often without the clues necessary to anticipate the greater meaning. That I enjoyed the twists at all is charged by my true affection for the various main characters who had strengths, flaws, and a real sense of different personalities that sprang from their circumstances.

Writing a novel requires a variety of skills. It is far from a simple task. There is room for Gareth Clegg to grow as a novel author, but his debut work has enough going for it to entertain and enough potential to give hope of greater works to come. Fogbound lacks nothing where it comes to complex characters or sense of place. The error, if it can be called that, in plotting is largely one of scope. The plot is so complicated it can be overwhelming and attempts to incorporate many different aspects of the backstory while lacking the subtle notes to bring the reader along rather than having them always tagging behind. There’s enough material crammed into this long novel to fill out a trilogy, and perhaps that greater space would have fixed the plotting weakness. But even as it stands, there’s much to enjoy in this imaginative and immersive take on the aftermath of an alien invasion in a steampunk world.

P.S. I received this ARC from the author in return for an honest review.

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