Ambitious steampunk – Martin Kee’s ‘A latent dark’

Description by the author / blurb:

When Skyla looks at your shadow, your shadow stares back.

Skyla has lived secretly within the city walls of Bollingbrook for eleven years, playing among the airship factories and trainyards. As one of the Gutter District’s nameless destitute, it has gone undiscovered that she has a unique talent: when Skyla looks at a person’s shadow she sees through it and into another world. She can see people’s fears, desires, their past sins–all as swimming, living creatures.

Her mother has never told her the real reasons why they must remain hidden, never explained the true dangers that exist outside the city walls. But when her mother’s past catches up with them both, Skyla finds she must flee out of the city and into a world still recovering from a second Dark Age, a world of adults with secrets only she can see.

For a stranger has recently moved into Bollingbrook, a man some call the Pope of the South, a witch hunter to some and a hero to others. When more children begin to disappear, suspicions are raised and an unlikely search party is formed to find Skyla in the hopes that they aren’t already too late.


When I enjoyed reading a novel, I get very critical about it, because I have become interested by it, I got infected by the story. I will end up writing what I didn’t like about the book – precisely because I liked it so well. Now I even want to see it better. This as a line of caution for what is to come.

Martin Kee is an impressive writer – what’s the more, he is an impressive stylist. His sentences are always thought-through and polished; often they glitter like a sharpened diamond with many facets. Rich descriptions are caught in just a few words. That makes sentences such as this: „Its oversized brass fittings and and thick plates of armor glinted in the waning sunlight as it rolled through the tunnels and spider webs of rusted girders.“ In the beginning I felt overwhelmed by phrases so densely packed. I had trouble processing them, conjuring up all the images that were shot off in a mere line of words. For me the style took its getting used to. But once this had happened, I came to view it as an enrichment to the story.

Still, one point remains to be said about the style. Sometimes I thought that descriptive language was employed when I had expected short, agent-driven language. Just a single example among many: “He swooped past her, landing on … the trunk, pecking… She flung the lid open, digging clothes … tossing them …” With the reiterated use of the ing-form of verbs, the grammatic ‘continuous aspect’ is evoked. Instead of actions taking place separately, the action shows as a singular event that is stretched out. Thus a scenic, rather static description is conveyed. It does not seem to fit a rapid and thrilling succession of events. Similarly, I sometimes read in action scenes: ‘He did that and that, as he did etc.’ Actions are highlighted against another frame of actions, thus interrupting the movement, creating a snapshot of the moment. Often action scenes were such snapshots of moments, put one against the other, instead of the fast stream of events they should be. The confusing impression, however, was paramount at the beginning of the novel; as I got used to a descriptive style of action, it wore off. Nevertheless I would have liked some scenes written with the same momentum of style the rapidity of happenings seemed to demand.

The image-laden style has its own great advantage. It renders the atmosphere of the novel both dense and immediate. The richly layered language evokes a myriad of pictures. They do not fail to let the reader take part in the vision of the setting the author had on his mind. As often with steampunk novels, the atmosphere is by no means light. The alternate history the novel tells is a dark history indeed.

Which brings me right to a thematic evaluation. In that alternate world, the Catholic Church is described as the dominating, fearful power of the world. In consequence, throughout the novel the abuse of religious power runs as a mayor theme. Shortly before the close of the novel, the theme runs to its full in a ‘Letter to the Pope’, which also carries the seeds for the storyline of a possible sequel.

This is the blunt message of the novel: there is spirituality (a spiritual realm after death is vividly depicted), but all religion is man-made. There are no Gods, but the promise to become a god is implanted in every human. There is no life after death, but a continuation of what you are in life. As such, I’d identify a rough blue-print of Buddhist spirituality as a central topic of the novel.

It’s not that all ramifications of institutionalised religion would fall under condemnation. A major sympathetic character is a Catholic priest himself, but then he gains his major sympathy points by acting so very un-institutional right from the start. Eventually he will comment on his own beliefs by saying he hasn’t lost his faith, but he has lost faith in religion.

I found this basic Buddhist message, always the same in new garments, just a little too uninspired. It’s the mainstay of popular fiction. It doesn’t even seem a message anymore: it has become a common-place made stale by overuse. Philip Pullman worked long and large on that theme in „His Dark Materials“. I think he hasn’t left anything left to say about it.

The tension arc, as I experienced it, was imbalanced in the middle. The story starts off at a fast pace. In a rush I read through the escape from Bollingbrook, the descent into the Wilds, and the cabin in the forest. In the same rush I took in the sinister manoeuvres of Reverend Lyle (the bad priest) and the opposition that builds up between him and Father Thomas (the good priest) – culminating in the scene of their talk in the hotel room, a scene where nothing happens, really, but that nevertheless caught all the frightening subtleties in the conversation between the two men. I can still see Lyle’s unsettling artistic creations before me.

After that, I felt the tension eased out. The events about Lassimir, though important to the story and of epic dimension, couldn’t quite move me. Only when the main characters verge in on the city of Rhinewall, about the third part of the novel, could the story get me into its grip again.

I thought about how it came I felt the tension-arc dropped in the middle – though, certainly, action was not lacking! Then I realised that I wasn’t happy whenever the focus of storytelling shifted back to Skyla. The thing is, for me, action doesn’t create tension. Tension builds when the action occurs around people I can relate to. I couldn’t relate to Skyla. In fact, I already couldn’t relate to her from the moment her mother’s disappearance left her apparently quite unruffled. It’s true that, at one point when she talks about her mother, she starts to cry. But it’s brushed off in a couple of sentences and it’s not even clear if she didn’t rather cry because she was overpowered by all the events that had befallen her. Skyla, emotionally, comes across rather shallow, and that’s all the more confusing because she is a mere child. And despite the great player she becomes in the story of this world, I didn’t get an idea what could be her driving force. I was surprised to find the author thus left her main character traits empty. About the middle through the book, the side-character Harold is introduced, and just on a couple of pages, the reader learns about his principles in life, about what guides him, and how it fails to guide him. In these few pages, I learnt more about this side-character than I learnt about Skyla all the way through. I ended up being far more concerned about his welfare than about Skyla’s, as strange as it seems.

In general, I would have wished the characters were drawn in more complex shades. Skyla’s antagonist as well, the Reverend Lyle, is rather presented as a sketch than as a portrait. How come he is a religious fanatic, since he can tell so well between the vain promises and the hard science behind religion? What is this greater dark that lurks inside him, that makes his skin physically itch – and that is somehow bound to a first crime of the past, never explained?

Again: what is the relation between Marley and Dale, why does Marley always feel responsible for him? The reader receives hints, strewn here and there, but they remain ineffective as a background to their characters, as they remain incomprehensible. The hints are not taken up, not weaved into an intelligible account.

Limitations in character depth, however, were redeemed by a powerful, coherent story construction. What is the „Latent Dark“, what is the net of explanations holding the plot together? It is expounded by a scientist as part of the Rhinewall-scenes. The explanation is presented in an unassuming way, but it sheds a stark and interesting light on everything that has been happening. I sped through these few pages of talk even faster than through the wildest action scene in the book. Now Steampunk is not about scientific credibility, but the core of the story is plausible and can hold all the turns of the plot together. I thought the plot was veering off when a side-character made his trip into the after-life; I had thought it reeling off already a few times before; now it was interesting to see how the pieces added up, how they had been connected right from the beginning. (As far as the explanation goes, however, I must admit I was lost on how quantum mechanics should fit into it. It seemed to be a term to cover the raging play of perspectiveness in the shadowy afterlife. But I’m not sure.)

To conclude, as the major shortcoming of the book I experienced a drop of the tension arc in the middle because of the lacking depth of characters.

So as not to distort the picture, I have to underline that it’s one of the best novels I read quite in a while and that the story as a whole has fully merited its four stars. It is a work of quality.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

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