Sunday, February 10, 2013

Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan: review

Pandaemonium by Ben Macallan. Solaris Books £7.99

Reviewed by Jenny Barber

“Trouble didn’t follow me, so much as the other way around. I stalked it down dark and obviously untrustworthy alleyways, picked its pockets for the hell of it, tapped it on the shoulder and ran away like a kid playing games, led it inexorably into other people’s paths and let them face its fury.” (p.89)

Desdaemona’s on the run again. She ran once before, and found refuge and a new life – for a while at least. But she had a few issues with what she had to do to keep it, so she talked fast and hoped no-one would notice the lies. But trouble is never far away and now she’s harried from pillar to post, by way of old allies and enemies across a broad landscape that takes you from the forgotten stations of the Underground to the chalk lands where the White Horse is ready to ride ever onwards.

Then there’s the complication of two old boyfriends: Jordan, the new love she’s running from – freshly crowned somewhat-reluctant prince of hell; and Jacey, the old love from a previous life she’s running to – heir to an empire and best protection from the wild assortment of mercenaries set upon her. 

There’s a lot of running in this book – by foot and motorbike, by horse and rollerblade and some of it is fun, but at times it becomes too much and can be an exhausting thing to read as you go from monster attack to extended running scene, to monster attack to another extended running scene with scant places to stop and breathe in between. And yet, when those occasions for rest occur, they are often accompanied by the swelling of interesting background detail into just a little too much information that leaves you impatient for the action to start up again. In the author’s previous books this particular stylistic quirk has worked to great effect so perhaps the incongruity is because there’s a certain expected rhythm to urban fantasy, with pop beats you can nod your head to, and Pandaemonium reads more like a surprise jazz remix of a tune you sort of recognise.

“They were going to hang my boyfriend up by his heels and bleed all the life out of him, and they thought I’d want to watch.

“No. Almost all of that is true, but none of it is right.” (p.7)

The book hangs on its lead, and Desdaemona is an awkward character to like. You can sympathise with her plight, want her to shake free of the trouble dogging her, but liking her seems optional. She’s all sharp edges, the centre of everyone’s world and there is the persistent impression that all her sins are instantly forgiven so that everyone can flock to her assistance just when it’s needed. With Jacey, the forgiveness can be understood; there’s been plenty of adjustment time since they became exes, and the previous volume of the series offered a hashing out of their old business that allows for a certain degree of moving on; but there’s no apparent fallout for her betrayal of Jordan, save it creating the instigation for her to start running. 

At the very least you’d expect him to make a snippy comment at some later point, instead of quite happily shrugging off the fact that she forced him into something he’d clearly said he didn’t want to do. And at the very least you’d expect some sign of her own motivation for it, beyond the brushed aside excuse that she felt it needed doing and was hers to do. Perhaps they both felt it was some kind of subconscious payback for him forcing her to face a part of her own past in the last book, but if so that’s not clear in the text and so his switch from betrayed to helper creates a feeling of unfinished business.

There’s also a running obsession with power happening throughout as Desdaemona repeatedly dwells on both the power of her gifted Aspect and the power of those around her: an understandable habit given her necessary rise from powerlessness, and the need to measure the many potential threats against her own ability to respond, all of which make her choices at the end particularly effective.

“I’d told the story before, here and there, or parts of it: just often enough that the old ways of telling it, the old words came easily to my tongue.” (p.91)

And yet, despite pacing issues and odd character niggles, Pandaemonium is still a hypnotising read. Macallan, no matter what name he writes under, has always had a distinctive gift for language that catches you up and pulls you along, weaving decorous spells that don’t let go. The story is built slowly, layering piece upon piece until the whole emerges in a patchwork of glorious imagery and fun concepts that make you want to read the next one to see what he can come up with next.

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