'House Immortal,' (click here for review) the first volume in Devon Monk's series of the same name, was a thoroughly enjoyable ride but it was also a glimpse into a fascinating and complex future world.
I thought a lot about how it managed to balance things: between the small number of interesting characters in the foreground and a bigger, more diverse set in the background; between the strong focus on action and an intriguing worldbuilding effort; between what would be resolved by the end of that first book and what would wait for its moment in future volumes. It was a big story without the page count to do it full justice.
On reflection, I felt that it did surprisingly well, all things considered, but I don't believe that 'Infinity Bell,' its first sequel, manages the same feat. It's just as enjoyable, but it's enjoyable only as a ride rather than also being a deeper and further exploration.
We begin immediately after the worldshaking end of the first book, with a House leader, one of the eleven most important people in the world, assassinated in front of a huge audience, and a second murdered in a more private setting. That leaves a small group of key players on the run from the combined forces of all the most important people on the planet.
There's Abraham Seventh, one of twelve original galvanized, immortal beings accidentally created by the Wings of Mercury experiment in time travel which went awry three centuries earlier. He's been charged with that second murder and his innocence will be very difficult to prove. There's Matilda Case, the focus of 'House Immortal,' the only new galvanized since the original dozen, which means that she may be the key to immortality for anyone. And there's Quinten, her genius brother, the one who stitched her consciousness into the body of another girl and thus granted her immortality.
While the early chapters alternate between their escape and the growing political storm that inevitably follows in the wake of the violent finale to the first book, the balance soon shifts emphatically towards the former and rarely looks back. Monk does very little to expand on the big picture here, instead letting one meeting between the heads of the eleven Houses do for now. What they discuss and decide is vastly important to the world at large but sadly we don't follow the fallout. We just switch back to the escape.
At least that escape is a worthy one. The trio make it out of the city safely, if only just. They make it to friendly faces, if only just, and pick up extras for their journey. And they find a way to move onward, if only just, to travel back to the Case family farm, the most dangerous place in the world for them; because there is another concern on their mind beyond escape: survival.
I don't just mean their survival. I mean the survival of all the galvanized and potentially millions of other people too. Quinten has spent years analysing the Wings of Mercury. He now believes that the experiment broke time, but in a temporary way; it's about to snap back into place in mere days and when it does, those twelve immortals will die. The only way to save them is to take advantage of that moment to travel back in time to force a correction to the experiment.
Needless to say, time is of the essence and the odds are hardly stacked in their favour. Wanted by everyone, going back home is hardly the safest thing they could attempt, but that's where they have to be to take care of business. Of course, this does create massive amounts of tension, danger and action, all of which pervade this book as deeply as its ink.
I have to admire Monk's talent for action in prose. These 340 pages zipped by so quickly that my thumbs will be suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. If the last book was a fast read, this one is faster still. 'Crucible Zero,' the third book in the series that is due in September, promises to be such a fast read I'll need to keep a fire extinguisher handy in case the page turning starts a spark.
I felt for these characters as they hurtled through friendly and unfriendly territory both. I ached for the galvanized, as they become stored away like lab specimens even as their doom might be approaching. I cared about the relationships on show, the favours called in and the honour among thieves that make that possible. Monk doesn't shy away from the little details and many of them feel big in their moment.
The problem is that there's precious little here except that ride. Sure, there's a big boss battle with time, but the best aspects of the first book are mostly missing. The big picture is merely hinted at, while Monk focuses in on a few characters travelling within it. The many political shenanigans going on happen away from our attention and I kept wishing that Matilda would grab hold of the future equivalent of a newspaper to let us in on everything that was going down. We get precious little of that and 'Infinity Bell' feels less substantial because of it.
What's more, the finale is a real peach, but I don't know if it's great or awful. It does wrap up the overriding story arc, but it does so by sweeping the carpet out from under us and, a brief preview of book three aside, then telling us to wait six months to find out just how much everything has changed. It reminded me of the sort of TV show season enter that has fans leaping around in fits arguing about whether it's the best thing since sliced bread or whether their favourite show just jumped the shark. Only the next season or, in this instance, the next book can really say.
And that means that this is really just a transitional story. It entertains but it doesn't enlighten, educate or expand. It mostly ignores the admirable complexity of this world to focus on instant gratification through fast-paced action. Most of the promising cast members are shoved unceremoniously into the background in favour of a deeper look at the few people in focus. That doesn't help the admirable diversity of 'House Immortal,' but it does help build the key players. Mostly, it just sets the stage for a bigger and better book three, like it's a big 340-page prologue to the big reveal. It almost feels unfair to review it without that next volume ready to go.
There are many reasons why I ditched cable, but one reason was that I was fed up of waiting for new episodes to shows I like. I'm happier now ignoring them as they screen live, waiting for the end of the season or even the end of their entire run, so I can binge watch at my leisure.
Of all the book series I've ever read, this one fits closest to that TV mentality. I want to read this whole series, mark my words, but Monk hasn't written it all yet and I have no idea how many books it will run to. Having devoured two volumes and still wanting a lot more, I feel like going back in time to tell myself to avoid starting it when I did, so that when I find it in my alternate future, I can blister through the whole series all at once. Maybe that's what's in 'Crucible Zero.' ~~ Hal C F Astell