It is with great pleasure and misplaced pride that I anticipated David Edison’s use of “omphalos” in his debut novel, The Waking Engine. “Hey,” I thought, “the City Unspoken [the setting] is an omphalos!” Edison confirmed my suspicions just pages later, when a prophetess addressed Cooper, the protagonist, as “Omphale.” I know things! (For those readers unfamiliar with the term, an omphalos is a navel or focal point. For instance, the ancient rabbis assert that Jerusalem is the omphalos of the world.)
Omphalos. Got it? Because you’re going to need a primer in the metaphysics The Waking Engine before we begin. In short, when people die, their souls are reincarnated, possibly in another universe. These collective, but finite, worlds comprise the metaverse. Eventually, either through the obscure satisfaction of some karmic debt, or sheer weariness, souls “Die.” That is, they altogether cease to exist. In order to die, souls transmigrate to certain omphaloses (omphalii?), of which one is the City Unspoken, the novel’s setting.
The Waking Engine begins when Cooper, our hero, falls asleep in New York City and wakens on a hillside in the City Unspoken. If that weren’t disorienting enough, he’s immediately accosted by Asher, a mysterious gray man, and Sesstri, a pink-haired scholar of the metaverse. Asher and Sesstri are looking for someone special, and Cooper doesn’t appear to be it. They assault him, assist him, abandon him and finally befriend him. Then things start to get weird. That’s right: then things start to get weird.
If genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, this Edison must have been a sweaty beast whilst furiously tapping at his keyboard. Edison’s imagination was working overtime. The Waking Engine is a hodgepodge of ideas, from technologically enhanced fairies, to the bored children of nobility who “kill” their peers for fun, to the first victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, reincarnated as worshipers of the undead. Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? It’s more the latter than the former, but I’m still not certain. (You can get a taste by reading an excerpt at Tor.com.) Whatever genre it might belong to, The Waking Engine surprisingly, unexpectedly, works.
The Waking Engine‘s success may be attributed to Edison’s imagery and unexpected turns of phrase. Consider, for instance, one of Edison’s villains, the Cicatrix, a fairy queen who has sacrificed her fey nature to technology. The Cicatrix is a cyborg, a living machine taking the form of a centipede or serpent. Or the skylords, undead sorcerers intent on the overthrow of Death, who, when they assume a corporeal form, appear as etched metal skeletons dressed in rags and, perversely, fine wigs. Edison’s imagery is inspired. So, too, is his prose. Edison’s dialog may sometimes be stilted, but his description of events is successful and, at times, surprising.
The Waking Engine is not an unvarnished success. This reader had two major complaints. First, Cooper lacks agency; he is almost entirely reactive. That may be attributed to the fact that he was ripped from his reality into a different world, a circumstance that should, in theory, have shattered his mind. Cooper, though, seems at ease with everything that happens to him, which might be attributed to his “special” nature. (And it could be said that Cooper’s ease with events serves to better orient the reader.) It might be assumed that Cooper will take a more active role in future installments, but in The Waking Engine he is a passive protagonist.
Cooper’s flaws aside, The Waking Engine’s real problem is structural. As indicated above, readers will find themselves dropped into an unfamiliar world with only the orientation provided on a page-by-page basis. Indeed, the novel is 400 pages long, but it was only when this reader was 100 pages into the story that he had a command of the setting and the ways in which it operates. The learning curve is steep, and the reader must be prepared to be confused; all will be made clear in time, but that does little for readers as they try to find their place in Edison’s world.
What you need to know: Not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction, The Waking Engine is a successful hodgepodge that draws on both and might be said to (vaguely) fall under the umbrella of urban fantasy. Hobbled by structural problems, The Waking Engine is not recommended for readers who lack patience. A strong debut novel that may be best appreciated by lovers of off-the-wall fantasy.