Thursday, 11 August 2011

'Debris' - Jo Anderton

Debris is the debut novel of Jo Anderton. It's the first part in the Veiled Worlds series. I was immediately attracted to Debris thanks to Jo Anderton’s innovative magic system. Most people have the ability to see and manipulate pions which are subatomic particles. Not by brute force but more by coaxing them into doing your bidding. It sounds extremely powerful and I was already thinking epic magic battles in the style of Steven Erikson. Debris the story of a woman who is cast down to the very bottom of society, stripped of her powers and her friends. Sounds quite tasty, doesn't it? Angry Robot kindly provided me with a review copy.

Much has happened since Tanyana graduated from Proud Sunlight as an Architect with Distinction. She was even the head of her own nine point circle and mingled with the elite of society. Then it all went wrong. She was with her circle working on the 800 meter high statue of Grandeur.  She lost control. No, control was vested from her, someone sabotaged her work. She fell.

Broken and battered, she wakes up. It takes a while to realise just how far she fell. She can no longer see pions, their beauty is gone forever. What makes it worse is that she can now see debris instead. Debris is the waste product from manipulating pions and can be unstable in large quantities. It's ugly.

Strange men with expressionless features order the technician that is tending her to proceed. The technician's large eyes are full of sorrow as he apologises for what he must now do to her. Too weak to stop them, she is strapped down and operated on. Large needles filled with a silvery liquid hover around her like cobras waiting to strike. They plunge into her body, down to her very bones, before injecting her with the liquid silver. The technician is holding her hand and whispering words of comfort. Her already damaged body has metal grafted onto it. He stays by her side telling her how strong she is and how well her body is accepting the suit.

Now she is no longer an architect. She is now a debris collector. The surgery was necessary to fit her with the tools of her trade.

Jo Anderton's Debris feels like a breath of fresh air with her approach to magic. Lately, I've read books by well known authors who have tried new approaches, but have fallen short of the mark. Anything from uninspiring prismatic magic to gemstones charged by thunderstorms. Her pions manages to feel both magical and science-y at the same time. Jo Anderton brings it to life with her rich descriptions which make the magic feel both beautiful and dangerous. Pions are described as glowing particles, varying in color. Anyone that can see them will be treated to breathtaking visions of colours wherever they turn. Pions are mostly used for constructive things, heating water, creating light, powering transport or as digital displays. When I first read about her magic system, I had visions of the pions being used for epic battles but this never happened. She clearly did not have an epic fantasy in mind and I have to take my Steven Erikson abstinence somewhere else.

Jo Anderton has created a very compelling world that works well with the magic system. We are never given much information about the world as whole, but hints are dropped that we will see more of it in the next book. The story is played out in a large city ruled by ancients families. A totalitarian society and not at all the utopia I first expected. The brutality of the rulers is made perfectly clear after her fall and seems to come as a surprise to Tanyana as well. She is given no chance to defend herself, operated on against her will and forced into servitude.

Everything, and I mean everything, around the characters is fastidiously described. Their environment is instilled with a spark of life making it easy to imagine. I almost wished I could be there to see it. Her attention to detail is a blessing and a curse. The pacing of the plot suffers and some descriptions could probably have been left out to move the plot along.

Tanyana, the protagonist, is the strongest point of the book. At first I thought she would be hell bent on vengeance, like The Count of Monte Cristo. Luckily, she did not have to spend years in prison to harness that kind of lust for revenge. She is far more sensible and just want her life back and to clear her name. I found her likeable and easy to sympathise with. A strong and stubborn woman who tries very hard to build a shell around her to keep people at arm’s length. It's her vulnerability that won me over. In spite of her bravado and sharp tongue, she is lonely. Jo Anderton does very well in describing her loss and pain. The story is told from Tanyana's point o of view, which is perhaps why the other characters felt flat. They work well and assist in moving the plot forward, but they never invoked much sympathy.

As I said earlier, the details bog down the plot and this is most noticeable in the middle of the book when Tanyana is coming to grips with her new life. A lot of time is spent trying to win over her team of debris collectors, figuring out how her suit works. It’s nothing we have not seen before, unhelpful colleagues, people who dislike her for no apparent reason. Minor obstacles that turn up in every fantasy plot. The plot does not move forward in a convincing way. There is an occasion where she all of a sudden seems to remember a story told in university, which is actually a vital clue to what is going on with her. Another problem is her 'suit' which she seems to be unable to control. At critical times the suit acts for her, rendering her passive. I much prefer when the plot is moved forward because the protagonist is proactive.

Jo Anderton has written a lovely first novel. An innovative magic system in a world full of mystery and forgotten lore that is brought to life with her rich descriptions, a strong and interesting protagonist fighting to clear her name and a plot that raises many questions. Debris left most of them unanswered, but things are looking very promising for the next book, Suited.

Debris weighs in at 464 pages and is published by Angry Robot. It's scheduled for release in October 2011.

Recommendation: read

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