The land of Shale is in trouble. The Roil, a wave of darkness filled with unnatural monsters, is sweeping across the continent, engulfing everything it encounters. Out of twelve cities, only four remain standing. Humanity is fighting back in every way it can, but internal divisions between political factions increase the chaos, and more and more it seems like the end is nigh. It’s up to a drug-addicted boy, a young woman out for revenge for the death of her parents, and a man who may be thousands of years old, to try and stop the inevitable....
I’m often intrigued by the books Angry Robot puts out, because they frequently seem to straddle two or more genres. They’re hard to classify, and that alone often makes them interesting. Roil is another great example of this, as it combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, steampunk and horror, all wrapped in what, based on the blurb, looks like a pulse-raising apocalyptic adventure story. I had high hopes for this one, but even though Roil has some positive aspects, I came away mostly disappointed.
In a sign of things to come, the novel starts off with two scenes of high drama: in the city of Mirleess, David Milde watches political opponents cut his father’s throat, then has to go into hiding underground while suffering horrible drug withdrawals. Meanwhile in the city of Tate, which has somehow survived inside the Roil, Margaret Penn learns that her famous parents have successfully field-tested I-bombs, a possible method to stop the Roil, just as the city’s defenses finally begin to succumb to the relentless unnatural onslaught. She flees, trying to make her way through the chaos of the Roil to safety....
Most of the early parts of Roil consist of these high stakes, high drama scenes, but because the reader doesn’t really have any background yet about the people or the world’s history, it often feels like empty drama. It all sounds tremendously important but just doesn’t have much impact. The first few chapters of this novel feel like watching one of those movie trailers that cram all the big explosions, mysterious characters and dramatic bits of dialogue of a two hour movie into a couple of minutes. It’s impressive, but it lacks the context that would give it real meaning. Roil would have been served very well by setting up the situation and the characters a bit before throwing them all into the deep end of the pool, so the reader would have some empathy and understanding. I actually stopped reading at one point to make sure this wasn’t book two of a series. (As far as I know it isn’t, but if ever a book could benefit from a prequel, this is it.)
Strangely enough, there actually is some exposition early on, in the form of excerpts from fictional history books that analyze, from a future perspective, the events we’re currently witnessing. However, these aren’t always helpful because the information tends to be vague and often focuses on the macro level, not on the characters we’re dealing with in the story. The very first excerpt, heading Chapter One, talks about political factions such as Engineers and Confluents, which doesn’t make much sense when you first read it. I’m not crazy about info-dumps as it is, but the ones in Roil are doubly annoying because they often don’t help much and sometimes actually create more confusion.
Still, there are also many positives in those early chapters, if you’re willing to go with the flow. Especially the early scenes set in Tate, the final bastion of humanity in the Roil, are sometimes breathtaking. The descriptions of the city’s defenses are simply awe-inspiring, and Trent Jamieson really manages to paint the picture so the reader can envision the situation perfectly. Margaret’s journey through the Roil is at times hair-raising. If only we’d had a handful of chapters before the start of the novel to set everything up, those scenes would have had so much more impact. (By the way, if you want a taste of Roil, Angry Robot has some sample chapters available here. Check out Chapter 2 for Tate’s city defenses, which I thought were some of the best parts of the novel.)
The experience of reading Roil is doubly frustrating because there’s actually a lot of really inventive world-building going on. You just have to work your way through a large chunk of the book to get to the point where you can really appreciate it. The Engine of the World, the Old Men, the Cuttlefolk, the Aerokin, the Vastkind... all these things are mentioned briefly here and there, but they only begin to form a coherent picture as you read further into the novel. Roil is a book set in a period when everything is falling apart, but it focuses heavily on the “falling apart” bit and doesn’t really describe what it is we’re seeing the dissolution of until later. Roil is a great book to reread, because a second look will allow you to catch some details of the novel’s spectacular setting that are mostly meaningless the first time around. However, I’m afraid many readers won’t even make it through one reading without getting too frustrated to continue, also because the pacing is uneven and the story at times seems directionless. That’s a shame, because despite all its shortcomings, there are some wonderful aspects to this novel.
Roil’s main strength is its inventive worldbuilding, but this is often overshadowed by its tendency towards the over-dramatic and its unsuccessful start that fails to build empathy for the characters and understanding of the novel’s setting. I tried very hard to like this book, but even after two readings, it just didn’t work for me.