|I've talked about the curse of discovering that almost every new sci-fi or fantasy novel nowadays is merely the newest in a series I've never previously encountered. This rare example of the first in an entirely new series highlights the flipside of that curse. Sure, I came in at the beginning but, a solitary book later, the series has nothing else to give me until March 2015 when book two, 'Infinity Bell', will be released.
Fortunately, Devon Monk isn't a new writer and she has a bunch of other works in other series to track down in the meantime. She's best known for her Allie Beckstrom series that began in 2008 with 'Magic to the Bone' but, given my many steampunk connections, I'll certainly grab her 'Age of Steam' series first.
This appears to be something different again. 'House Immortal' pictures a future Earth in which countries have ceased to be, replaced by eleven houses, named for colours and focused on particular industries, as if the world was divvied up between the departments of a non-existent global corporation. House Black is security, House Yellow technology, House White medical and so on.
We don't get into house politics for a while and never at depth. This is a very human story, even if the humans aren't always human. Perhaps it's inevitable that they end up at House Gray, which is Human Resources.
We're here to follow the exploits of Matilda Case, who at the start of the book has no house affiliation or protection, which puts her into major jeopardy when the houses notice that she exists. She's living off the grid, running a farm with a host of odd creations. There's a dragon in her back yard and her grandmother knits directly from miniature sheep. Then again, she's something of an odd creation herself.
She died long before the book begins, a child beset with a sickness that couldn't be healed. However, her genius brother, Quinten, using family secrets that the world would kill for, spirited her into the body of a girl who had been sleeping for centuries. Now she's immortal, one of the Galvanized, easily recognized by their stitches and the fact that they're about the most well-known people in the world.
Well, except for her. That world knows of a dozen of them, each created centuries ago during an experiment to stop time that killed everyone else in a fifty mile radius. They were the unexpected side effect that changed everything: strong, powerful immortals who can't feel pleasure or pain. They're warriors, historians and guinea pigs, now owned outright by the houses as part of a peace deal they brokered to save the world from inevitable destruction.
Matilda is the thirteenth, the only new Galvanized ever, and surely someone who will shake up everything once the world becomes aware of her existence. And so she does, this first volume in the series beginning well but ending amazingly with a climax that works for the book but will work even better as the lead-in to its successor.
What seems amazing in hindsight is how much isn't in 'House Immortal'. We're given a very wide scope, a set of eleven houses which span the world and indulge in constant and complex power struggles. Yet we're only given hints at such things. Each of their varied heads has a potentially major part to play in the series, but we're only introduced to a few in depth. No doubt the balance of power will shift as we go and we'll learn more about others later. We meet each of the dozen Galvanized, along with Matilda. Again we're shown what possibilities they suggest but are forced to wait to find out which will come to pass.
That's not to say that the 350 pages are empty. Devon Monk is a dab hand at making us care. She crafts characters that we want to know more about; whether they're good guys or bad guys, or, as is most likely here, somewhere in between. Every one of them could well be both. The world she creates is an intriguing one, well-imagined with a deft touch that makes it seem like she didn't craft anything; it merely sprang into life on her pages. And she gives us action, romance, tension, intrigue, fantasy and science. There's a lot here.
Matilda Case is a wonderful character. She's just like the rest of us, full of goodness, strength and caring. She's not remotely like us, an immortal being stitched out of the grip of Death by a genius brother. And she's a mystery, someone who doesn't even know who she really is and what she will mean to the world she hides from. She's immediately accessible, neatly exotic and a highly believable catalyst for immense change.
The other characters we meet are fascinating creations too, from Galvanized like Abraham Seventh through house heads like Oscar Gray to mutant friends like the Neds Harris, one man with two heads which more often than not disagree with each other. Not all of them make it through this book, but Monk isn't as ruthless with her characters as, say, George R. R. Martin. It's good to know that we can't trust any of them to remain in place as the story progresses, but it's also good to know that most of them will. The balance is a good one thus far.
The most obvious problem I had with the book is that I wanted a lot more. This story runs around 350 pages, but it could easily have eaten up two or three times that. I wanted to know more about these people, what they do and where they're taking things. I wanted more intrigue, more action, more depth. I do fully realize though that what I want isn't necessarily what should happen. Monk isn't going to turn out a thousand page book every six months, but maybe she can keep the 350 page ones coming and feed the habit with which she just injected me.
In other words, however much more I wanted, I think she got the balance right. For a first novel that leaves so much possibility for future volumes, it still has a great deal to keep us busy until they see print. In the meantime, she has a backlist and if there's anything better than a new discovery, it's a new discovery with a backlist. ~~ Hal C F Astell