Thursday 16 October 2014

Ecko Burning

More Ecko Bound

Ecko Burning
by Danie Ware
Titan Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781781169087

Warning: Slight spoiler for the previous book
 in order to talk about this one on a surer footing.

Okay, here we go.

Ecko Burning is the second of Danie Ware’s trilogy which started with Ecko Rising, reviewed here. I liked that first novel quite a lot and, as it turns out, I like this follow up just as much but it’s not a case of “all more of the same” this time around, I’m happy to confirm.

There are two things about the title character which I find interesting. One is that he’s not really the central character of the books. I think I said that in my last review and Ecko Burning reconfirms that attitude that these books are very much an ensemble piece as far as the cast of characters in these novels go. He might well be a very important guy in the overall scheme of things but I still haven’t figured that out yet. Like the first novel, Ware does the job of locking in the mystery of the two worlds depicted in the Ecko books (at least two, but we still haven’t got to the point in these stories where my natural suspicions are allayed on world counts either) and makes sure that she still doesn’t spill any beans as far as the end game goes... certainly not in this novel, at any rate.

The other thing about Ecko which is kind of interesting is that, central character or not, although he may still be the most important character in, what will soon be, the trilogy... he never seems to change or learn too much about his situation. He’s dogged by his own ego (which may or may not be a correct response, actually, time will tell) and he’s always certain that the future version of London that we know him from (kind of) is the correct template for reality and he’s playing somebody else’s game. He wants his ‘level ups’, to quote him in the gamers jargon that the writer uses so fondly at certain points. This doesn’t always help him and nor does it help his companions much either, when certain events unfold.

After the cliffhanger of the last novel, which had my favourite teleporting pub smashing through the barriers between worlds and leaving the mythical land of the majority of the book, quite literally penetrating Luger’s offices in the cyberpunk vision of future London... we are left out on a limb for a while about that particular puzzle piece of the story and the start of this one sees us back to a new adventure in the world where Ecko is currently trapped. It’s a world where two important things are happening simultaneously, which may or may not be part of the same plot. One is a big ‘political coup’ which throws the streets of the world into chaos as martial law and wholesale slaughter at the hands of a take over bid on the state are used to wield power. The other thing is perhaps best described as a plague of decay, overrunning both the people of the land and, as importantly, their crops etc. The fact that this is an almost viral infection, which transforms anything it touches, is not lost on me as I believe the author’s gaming sensibilities that I mentioned in the last review means she’s not unaware of computer games and the lethal path cut by a computer virus. Which is an interesting thing to consider actually because I think I came to a realisation about one of the writer’s current pet obsessions while I was reading this one... asides from all the gaming stuff that is.

When you have a successful artist in whatever medium, be it film, painting, writing, photography etc, you can often spot that artist’s signature in their work... one or more of those tell-tale contextual or stylistic flourishes which are common links between a number of their pieces. The majority of the early work of David Cronenberg is best described as having an emphasis on body horror, for instance, and I think Ware has a similar obsession to him actually. Or not so much body horror but with the transformation of one state of being into something else. All through these two novels we have people being transformed. In this one we have people going out of their mind or decaying as a result of whatever viral phenomenon is plaguing this land, we have one of the heroines who was accelerated/aged beyond her years in the last book, we have a heroic champion who finds himself quite drastically altered into something terrifying by the end of the novel and, of course we have Ecko. Both he and, in this book, another character from the last novel, have undergone some severe upgrades to their basic human template and are, themselves, both transformed men. It seems to me that this is very much a theme of Ware’s work at the moment.

Evolution, malignant or natural, aside... people who loved the first novel will find a lot that’s familiar  intermingled with the new flavours. The postmodernistic cross cultural references are still very much in abundance, especially through the first half of the book. Fun references like “Not the zombies I was looking for...”, “Lugan stood in the front garden of a quasi-medieval pub that had just beamed-the-fuck-down-Scotty in the middle of his chop shop” and “The bloke was a fucking loony - but he had more guts than Mr. Creosote” are planted at key times when Ware needs a moment to increase empathy in her readers by grounding her fantasy with allusions to phenomena in our own world. I found it particularly startling to find a Joseph Heller reference in the middle of a heroic fantasy setting, I have to say, but it all works pretty well.

Our scribe on Ecko’s journey does return to the cliffhanger ending of the last novel at some point in the proceedings and starts to set up a convoluted narrative in “future London” which, whenever she briefly returns to it, gives us little half glimpses of what may or may not be going on but without giving us a definitive answer on the seemingly flexible fabric of not just one, but two worlds. At first I was sure she was just going to return to London at the end of the book with a reiteration of that incident but she doesn’t ignore all that stuff and what goes on in London has consequences for those inhabitants ‘cross platform’... so to speak. I’d possibly be giving stuff away to speak more of such things (and probably get it all wrong anyhow) but, as usual, the techniques Ware uses to weave her story are quite masterful and I’m sure I couldn’t even begin to comment on the world of subtleties found in her writing.

That being said... a couple of things really stayed with me from this book.

One thing she does which is very nice is to continue to shout out details of a fight sequence when two or more protagonists are engaged in their own sections of a fight, so they can be cross referenced in the minds eye while reading... thus allowing you to keep track of where everybody is in relation to each other and where they are in the timeframe of a battle. However, an additional thing she’s done here... something I’ve seen done many times in the movies but don’t quite remember reading it in a book before (although that’s probably a case of bad “remembery” on my part)... is to have the confidence in her audience to be able to cut out a battle scene altogether. About 140 pages in, by way of example, there’s a fight involving a character called Rhan. Ware’s built both the stakes and the drama up at the beginning of the opening of the fight to the point where we can guess the outcome... we know that the Rhan character is a very powerful warrior so, rather than take us through the entire fight, Ware just skips to the end and describes the aftermath of the character contemplating victory. Neat idea and it doesn’t get bogged down in an action piece which might have been nice to read but would have ultimately, maybe, slowed down the narrative pace at this point. There’s obviously a reason for doing this but, whatever that reason is, the writer’s solution is a pretty good one and doesn’t insult the intelligence of her army of readers either... so that’s all good.

There’s another point which was cool because I was fooled completely for a few pages into thinking Echo had finally woken up to whatever his real reality is... which may or may not be the reality he is living in the book. As it turns out there’s something else going on here, not just for him but for a few of the characters, but the writer did some effective wool pulling in this sequence... so that made me smile.

I also got myself a little bit more educated this time around with my Ecko experience. Noticing what I thought was a peculiar quirk of the writer’s possible tendency to anthropomorphism in referring to all towns and villages as feminine, as in the line early in the novel “Celebration danced drunken through her zig zag streets.” made me check out if this was a Danie-ism or an actual correct term for such things. Turns out this is a known way of referring to cities etc and dates back to the gender of the term in latin so... how did I go through my life not knowing that one?

And that’s more or less all I’ve got to say about this one. It’s not a good jumping on book if you were thinking of skipping the first (and why would you?). So go back and read that one before gulping this one down. If you are already a fan of Ecko Rising then I’m pretty sure you’ll have a blast with this second one too. Ware is a writer who knows how to pace drama and string out the suspense to the maximum. Also, if you’ve not read any of her books before, you should probably not get too attached to some of the characters you meet in your journey through the pages. She’s not in the habit of giving all her characters happy endings and often you’ll lose a regular character or two, sometimes before you even know it. There's a really poignant bit towards the end of Ecko Burning where, after a terrifying beast is killed in battle, you realise the beast was not what you thought it was and that someone very interesting had just become a mere statistic in battle, his death unheralded. So there’s that... it made me think of a non-character called Glyph in Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s The Ballad Of Halo Jones... and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

So there you go. Another excellent adventure in an uncertain realm with uncertain characters, some of whom have a decidedly shaky grip on their moral compass. Now I just have to wait until the third and possibly concluding book of the trilogy gets published... sometime soon I hope. I need some closure... and I’m not at all certain that the kind of closure I want will be readily forthcoming for Ecko and his crew without a hard won fight. Something to look forward to, then.

Danie Ware's website can be found here...

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