Road To More Ecko
by Danie Ware
Titan Books Ltd
This hardly ever happens to me.
I had just finished a day out with a friend in London and was riding the tube back, homeward bound, to make my next connection at Finsbury Park. It must have been about 6pm and my nose was stuck in a book, surfacing every couple of minutes to check the station name as the tube pulled in at each and every stop. Or so I thought.
All well and good but, as I looked up for the gazillionth time, I realised I was at Manor House. “What the-?” I’d overshot my station by one stop because I’d been distracted by what was turning out to be a pretty good book.
This would have consequences.
The downside was, of course, that when I finally got to Seven Sisters to get the overground train, I’d missed it by a minute and I had 29 more to wait on the platform until the next one came along. On the other hand... this also meant I’d have another 29 uninterrupted minutes of the book in question... Ecko Rising... so that was all cool then.
But, like I said... that hardly ever happens. Sure, I sleep past a stop on the bus some evenings (I’m getting old, methinks) but, mostly, I never let something distract me to the point that I miss a vital connection on the tube. So this is how I knew I was reading a good book, you see?
Readers of this blog will know that I still read the occasional novel which could credibly be termed science fiction or fantasy... but it’s mostly limited to the latest Wild Cards novel or something with Doc Savage in it. In a former lifetime, however, I was into fantasy and sci-fi a lot more than I am now and so I knew I could probably hack something like Danie Ware’s debut novel okay... which looked to be a curious blend of English cyberpunk mixing it up with heroic fantasy. But that’s not the full reason I decided to read this devilish, journey delaying tome.
I’m on Twitter, you see.
Most of my friends and acquaintances don’t understand the appeal of this particular social media thingummy jig and, truth be told, I never understood it either until I joined up specifically to try and promote this web page. But I got a whole lot more out of it when I started chatting to people and, in some ways, it’s like a voyeuristic form of reality TV for folks like me who wouldn’t touch reality shows with a rusty barge pole. One of the people I followed was Danie Ware and, I think, she’d just commenced writing her first Ecko when I started reading her tweets in my stream. I was fascinated with her raw and edgy way of battling through life, one cynicism at a time but, what really made me sit up and take notice was her analogy for the process of writing. “Back to the wordface” she would always tweet and I used to think, yeah, sometimes getting those words right can be at least as exhausting as climbing a mountain. I knew exactly what she meant and I’m not even a proper writer (although I think I’ve written enough reviews on here over the last few years to fill a few books, by the looks of it).
I also knew I was eventually going to have to read at least one of her Ecko books because, like I said, I was one of many who were the tweet witnesses of its long and joyous birthing. She seemed like a nice gal so... maybe I should give the book a go. It might be cool.
And, yeah, I have to say right up front here, the book is, indeed... decidedly cool and, possibly, entering into the realms of “groovy.”
Ecko Rising is, as I mentioned earlier, a book which very much strides two worlds (at least two) - one of which is a futuristic London where the enhanced title character Ecko, for all intents and purposes a cybernetically modified killing machine with a smug attitude, is doing some kind of wetwork and demolition job for a private company. “There's a Fifth 'orseman an’ his names Apathy.” says Luger, Ecko’s current boss, and it sums up nicely a world which is sleeping its way into oblivion with a broad analogy which really isn’t a million miles away from where we are at now in society... soberingly.
However, when a job goes wrong, Ecko finds himself transported into a Dungeons & Dragons style realm where he has to leave behind his expectations of the way his environment behaves and try to find his purpose in a world of prophecy, myth, centaurs, failed cyberpunk experiments, stone magic and, my favourite thing about this novel, a teleporting pub which materialises in a different town every morning.
There’s lots to recommend about this novel and, also, a lot for the writer to get through in terms of setting up a basic but credible world view not just once, but twice... one for London of the future and one for the fantasy land. One of the things she does neatly, however, is pre-empt any guesswork as to what is actually going on by putting all your assumptions about it in the forefront of the thoughts of Ecko, who is not so much the main protagonist as he is one of many strong and fascinating characters sprinkled throughout the book. He is flawed and arrogant and, therefore, as real as any character you see created in fiction.. so he does stand out a bit more when he’s on but, truly, the many passages when he’s not around have so many cool characters you would be happy to hang out with in, say, a teleporting pub, that you don’t always miss him when he’s gone.
He also has a nice line of postmodernistic, eclectic pop-culture references which are peppered liberally throughout the novel and it seems very clear to me that Danie Ware has a full-on, take no prisoners, gamer’s mentality mixed in with a good appreciation of all things sci-fi and fantasy and it makes for some lovely nods to various genre classics that will have fans of such things (who are probably the core target audience of books like this) lapping it up and in her pocket from the word go. “A connecticut yankee in King Arthur’s Arms” for example or “The Magic Faraway Pub” and... “Ain’t exactly Minas fucking Tirith, is it?”. Neat little throwaway lines like this give something for the fanbase to look out for but, perhaps more importantly, they anchor the character of Ecko by giving him cultural references to a reality which the reader understands historically but which most of the characters in this book don’t comprehend in the slightest... and this is a great way of aligning Ecko with the reader and getting you on his side, of course. There are even references to things like Star Trek and Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion (a personal favourite) in here... and probably loads more that, as a not quite hard core fantasy fan, I was undoubtedly missing.
I say it’s obvious (and she’ll probably tell me I’m wrong now) that Danie Ware is a gamer from her writing and she seems to playfully embrace all the different forms of such in her yarn-spinning vocabulary - video games, role playing games, Steve Jackson style “turn to page x” adventure books etc - within the worlds she is, quite convincingly, charting in this novel. She also makes use of some of the structure of those kinds of entertainments to play with the reader as to just what the heck is going on at certain points in the novel. There’s a certain amount of mystery with the difference between interpenetrating realities, or possibly unrealities, as they bleed and rub against each other within the book and the ending really hammers home the point that, whatever you or, indeed, the title character thought was going on... well it may not quite be that simple. Think again, dear reader. I appreciated this because, if you’ve read my reviews of movies and books on here before, you know that I usually figure out the ending within the first ten minutes or so. Not so here. She’s on the ball about how to best mislead you on and that’s really cool.
There’s a couple of other things I thought were pretty good about this novel. One is that, when you get to a group battle scene which is then cross cut between three or more sets of protagonists/antagonists, she smartly uses an incident or, more specifically, a detail about an incident, to anchor you into the chronology of the fighting... no matter which set of protagonists you are following from section to section. So, for instance, a horse or similar creature may let out a scream specific to one particular incident and then, when you are following a different set of characters, there’ll be mention of that same scream coming from behind them, or whatever, and that will give you a reference to get everything that everyone is doing straight in your head as you read. I have to say, I’ve not consciously noticed this technique in novels before and it’s something I thought was a really great idea.
The other thing I noticed, and this is one of my pet hates with a lot of writers, is that the Danie Ware’s writing style, while clearly distinguishable in every character (as it should be and you kinda expect the fingerprints to show) is not infecting the characters to the point where they all sound like each other. I really hate when you enter the world of a book and the characters, all from different walks of life, all sound exactly the same... and almost every writer I’ve ever read makes this mistake of extending their personal style to the point that their characters become just cyphers. What doubly impressed me about this one is that Danie Ware has reeled in that tendency quite a bit. Some of the characters will always inevitably share a common style of thought and dialogue (just as friends and lovers seem to catch each other's speech and thought patterns off each other in real life) but here you have characters who are different enough from each other that they are allowed to become more flesh and blood to you by that differentiation. Now, you may argue that’s because Ware is dealing with characters that come from vastly different milieus and that it’s a natural, serendipitous symptom of that... but I don’t think so. I think there’s some very smart writing going on in this book and, when she’s done with Ecko for a while, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more greatness from her in novels to come.
So there you go. Pretty easy review to decode, I think. If you’re into fantasy, science fiction or game playing (and probably all three), then Ecko Rising is a good, healthy climb up the ‘wordface’. If you’re not into any of those three things... well it’s also not a bad jumping on point for fantasy and sci-fi in general, either. The characters are great, the ideas interesting and you’ll definitely be having some people in these pages you’ll be rooting for. Also, I mentioned it has a teleporting pub, right?
So my main advice would be... yeah. Give Ecko Rising a try.
As far as I’m concerned, I’ve already bought the second volume of the trilogy, Ecko Burning, and have it lined up for my summer holiday reading. So, I guess, like Webster’s dictionary... I’m more-Ecko bound!
Danie Ware's website can be found here... http://danieware.com/