THE WAKING ENGINE is David Edison’s debut novel about life, death, hidden gods and goddesses, dark elves, killer kids, prostitute queens, and one wayward New Yorker—Cooper—trying to make sense of it all. Unfortunately, Cooper isn’t the only one. Although perhaps one of the more beautifully written books I’ve read recently, THE WAKING ENGINE suffers from a plot that is slow to build, overburdened, and unclear, ultimately resulting in a frustrating novel.
In THE WAKING ENGINE, there is no eternal afterlife. People who die are instantly reborn on another world, again and again and again. Only after countless deaths do people arrive at the City Unspoken, where they can finally find True Death. Cooper, however, has only died once. Not only that, but True Death is no longer available to the Dying. So the City Unspoken swells, chokes, and breaks down. And with the city’s royalty trapped behind the walls of the abdicated prince’s palace walls, the City Unspoken’s darker elements are growing in power.
With the City on the verge of chaos, Asher and Sesstri are waiting for Cooper. Unfortunately, they realize all too quickly, he is not their savior. He is just a typical New Yorker—great at ignoring the city’s crazies and good for a sarcastic reply, but he’s not what they were hoping for. Although Asher and Sesstri never completely abandon Cooper, he is largely left alone to explore the City Unspoken (You can read an excerpt of THE WAKING ENGINE, including Cooper’s awakening and introduction to the City Unspoken, on tor.com.). Thus, the first quarter of THE WAKING ENGINE feels like a more literary version of Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWHERE, as human explores a dark, odd, potentially violent, but fascinating world.
Through the use of additional POV characters, readers are introduced to other denizens of the City Unspoken and the mystery preventing True Death is finally revealed in some detail. Unfortunately, very few of these characters seem all that eager to resolve the mystery. Instead, they were more interested in committing small crimes for small money, escaping palace walls, or searching for ways to best a villainous mother. And when I’m halfway through a book, and only a handful of characters are interested in solving the plot’s big problem, I quickly grow frustrated with that book.
All that being said, I think Edison writes at a very high level. His word choice is precise and poetic. In fact, at times, I was very thankful for my Kindle’s dictionary feature. For all my criticism of the slow start, his world building is fascinating, and his description is startling and vivid.
However, readers are only exposed to so much description because Cooper spends the first quarter of the book stumbling around the City Unspoken, unsure of where to go or what to do. He is entirely passive and lacking in agency. Until the novel’s final chapters, Cooper drifts from moment to moment, following in the wake of others. Thankfully, Edison switched to other POV characters, offering some respite from my frustration with Cooper.
These other characters offer not only a change in scenery, but also a fascinating look at the many subcultures of the City Unspoken. But they also create so many subplots that the novel becomes unwieldy, and the climax is muddied and left unresolved.
To be honest, if I didn’t have to write this review, I probably wouldn’t have finished THE WAKING ENGINE. That’s not to say that I would have tossed the book across the room (I don’t think my Kindle could take the beating). It’s that the more I read, the more frustrated I grew with the book. The City Unspoken is a fascinating world that shines when Edison describes it, and the ideas of True Death and its ceasing make are a promising beginning of a story. I just wish that THE WAKING ENGINE had delivered a conclusion that equaled its (albeit extensive) setup.
I found David Edison to be a top-notch writer, but only a mediocre plotter. THE WAKING ENGINE, while not without many beautiful moments, failed to live up to its potential. However, I will keep an eye on Edison. If he can tighten up his stories—get them moving sooner and resolve them more completely—I will definitely be sure to read his future novels. Until then though, I think readers can pass on THE WAKING ENGINE.