Chris Wooding,
Storm Thief
(Orchard, 2006)

British author Chris Wooding's latest young-adult fantasy Storm Thief simultaneously manages to be literally breathtaking -- and distinctly disappointing. Like his two previous YA novels, the darkly pseudo-Victorian Haunting of Alaizabel Cray and the faintly Borgesian Poison, Wooding's newest fantasy is edgily innovative, its vaguely postapocalyptic world alien yet gritty and well-realized, and its action of the adrenaline pumping variety. But like the mercurial figure who provides the book with its title, Storm Thief frustrates as often as it exhilarates, and never offers as much as it denies.

Almost no one comes to the gray, manmade island of Orokos in the middle of the sea, and even fewer leave it: "skimmers," mechanisms of an ancient and forgotten technology, ruthlessly destroy would-be emigrants. Officially and effectively, there is no world outside Orokos -- leaving the poor, tattooed by the government into a nasty, short and brutish existence in the city's ghettoes, with no means of escape. But even the wealthy and powerful are subject to the city's "probability storms" in which whole districts move, people wake up with six fingers instead of five, and Revenants, ghostly beings whose touch is death to humans, are created. Fancifully attributed to a mythical, ambiguous figure called the Storm Thief, these reality shifts only contribute to the uncertainty of life on Orokos, especially for the poor.

Enter teenaged protagonists Rail and Moa. Having lost his ability to breathe in a probability storm, Rail now depends on a disfiguring metal respirator. Moa's mother was taken by the government, and her father died trying to escape the island. Out of necessity, the two are thieves, scraping an existence in the ghettoes -- until they steal an ancient piece of technology with remarkable capabilities. In their ensuing flight from the people who want it, they come across a fellow fugitive called Vago -- a half-human, half-machine winged golem with the curiosity of a 5-year-old and the instincts of a killer. Life suddenly gets very interesting and very complicated for Rail, Moa and Vago. Not just their lives are at stake, but their friendships, their freedom -- and perhaps even the city of Orokos itself.

And that's just the beginning of a mad dash through Orokos, from the steaming blackmarket of the ghettoes to a deserted district overrun with Revenants, to a secret cliffside society with an impossible goal and to the impenetrable Null Spire itself, which houses within it the Chaos Engine responsible for the skimmers, the Revenants and the probability storms. Wooding's imagination is fully evidenced in this strange island. Strikingly beautiful images -- a girl stolen by the Storm Thief who now lives only in paintings throughout the city, the bright colors of a probability storm -- offer sharp contrast to the grim realities of hunger and betrayal.

Moral ambiguity is everywhere in Storm Thief, and with the exception of a few over-the-top nasties, characters have understandable motives and are neither purely good nor purely evil. Rail and Moa are fairly convincing teenagers, if a bit too compliant to gender roles, and their interactions are realistic and occasionally even poignant in their extreme understatement. But the book is effective primarily as an action fantasy; character changes are sometimes unconvincing, and the many ideas are brilliant but tragically underdeveloped. The brief answers provided about Revenants, Vago and the Chaos Engine are never quite satisfying; other questions, like why certain things only work for certain people, are not addressed at all. Some of the open ends fit in with the book's realism and recognition of the impossibility of tidy endings; others are simply frustrating.

Storm Thief is a compulsively readable and exciting read, but it doesn't fulfill its considerable potential or live up to its predecessors. Nonetheless, it has a mind-stretching originality missing from so much recent YA SF/F and is worth a read -- just in case Wooding has a sequel up his sleeve. Wooding deserves to be better known in the U.S.: fans of Eoin Colfer, Kenneth Oppel and Garth Nix should find the mixture of hard-edged action and invention exactly to their taste.

by Jennifer Mo
13 January 2007

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