Roil is the impressive first installment in The Nightbound Land duology by Trent Jamieson, up-and-coming Australian author of the urban fantasy trilogy Death Works. Jamieson’s newest novel showcases a powerful imaginative streak, creating a darkly fascinating world and successfully combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and horror.
Roil is an apocalyptic tale set in a world called Shale, which lies on the brink of destruction by a seemingly unstoppable force known as the Roil. The Roil manifests as a malignant heat and creature-filled darkness, spreading across the land and engulfing everything in its path. Of the twelve great metropolises that once stood, all but four have been consumed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Roil is not only expanding at an unprecedented rate, it also seems to be changing, taking on an intelligence of its own. Humanity prepares to make its final stand. However, the last chance of salvation may well lie with a drug-addicted youth, a vengeful young woman and a mysterious 4000 year old man as they seek a mysterious machine from a bygone era, The Engine of the World.
No time for half measures or polite introductions
Our initial introduction to the strange and perilous world of Shale is far from gentle. Roil begins with our protagonist, David,witnessing the brutal murder of his father by political adversaries before he, himself, is forced to flee for his life. The reader is thrown into the thick of the action and from then on the story progresses at a lightning fast place. Cities fall and lives are destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Personally, I found this helped create a sense of urgency and confusion which really complimented the overall tone of the novel and the events depicted throughout. Like the reader, the characters are “thrown into the deep end” with little time to collect their thoughts. Nevertheless, most of the negative reviews I’ve seen cite this “ungentle introduction” as one of the aspects they disliked about the novel. Undeniably, this will appeal to some readers more than others, as will certain other aspects of the narrative.
For instance, each chapter of Roil begins with an excerpt from “future texts” regarding Shale. These excerpts relate at least tangentially to the events depicted within the chapter, despite (quite cleverly) not giving too much of the story away. This may be a little confusing or jarring to some readers. Personally, I was a little uncertain at first, although I found I grew accustomed to these passages relatively quickly and came to enjoy the foreshadowing.
A plethora of interesting viewpoint characters
Multiple events unfold at once throughout Roil and, as a result, there are a number of simultaneous narratives and frequent shifts between various points of view. Initially, I felt a little detached from the characters as the viewpoint would change before I could get a good grasp on their personalities. However, as the novel progressed I grew to relate to these imperfect individuals and found characterization to be one of the novel’s strongest points.
Jamieson’s characters manage to remain relatable and believable even as their lives undergo complete upheaval and their world falls to pieces around them. The protagonists all retain shades of moral ambiguity and even their most “noble” actions are frequently driven by selfish or morally suspect motivations. David has nowhere else to go and would rather spend his remaining life spaced out on the drug Carnival than have any responsibility; Margaret is driven by an insatiable desire for revenge; and Cadell’s motivations, like almost everything else about the Old Man, are shrouded in mystery. Furthermore, even the most ruthless antagonists, such as Stade, are not wholly evil, and truly believe they are doing what’s best for humanity given the circumstances.
A fascinating world of imagination and horror
For me, one of the outstanding aspects of Roil was the setting. Jamieson is undeniably imaginative and the creations with which he populates his world are refreshingly unpredictable and decidedly bizarre.
In many way the civilizations depicted are technologically advanced, although much of this advancement seems to be tailored specifically to holding off the Roil. One gets the impression that when faced with imminent destruction, development related to all but the most immediate concerns is stalled and some aspects of society may even regress. Therefore, although we have advanced ice weapons and cold suits, most other aspects of the world are less advanced and embody what could be considered elements of steampunk.
Many other fascinating concepts are introduced throughout Roil, including countless weird creatures and strange technologies. The mythology of the Old Men in particular was quite intriguing. Little is known about the Old Men, although the remnants of their once great civilization lie scattered across Shale. In addition, they have strange powers and are as cold as ice to the touch, the very antithesis of the Roil’s heat. Despite the presence of so many intriguing creations, description remains relatively sparse throughout Roil as Jamieson invites the reader to use their own imagination. While this keeps up the pace and adds to the authenticity of the setting and characterization (the characters, after all, have grown up knowing what an aerokin looks like), it will probably suit some readers better than others.
The horror elements throughout Roil are deliciously creepy and insidious. Jamieson doesn’t resort to graphic violence or severed limbs, instead creating a creepy ambiance that unnerved me in a way that excessive gore never could. Some of the scariest moments are those in which he hints at untold horrors yet once again leaves the rest up to the reader’s imagination. Much terror lies in the unknown, after all.
The plot ends at a logical resting point, although many plot lines are left unresolved and there is still much to discover about Jamieson’s world. If you’re anything like me, you will be hankering for the next installment straight after you finish, so less patient readers may want to wait until the conclusion is closer to publication before starting this weird and wonderful duology.
Why should you read this book?
Overall, despite the fact that Roil has some minor flaws, they did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel. Those who like their fantasy complete with weird technologies, creepy monsters, and interesting characters need look no further. Roil is a fun, absorbing, and action packed read that isn’t to be missed.