Book Review: Greaveburn by Craig Hallam

A touch of steam-powered punk

Review: Greaveburn by Craig Hallam | Inspired Quill

Resonant with the hiss and clank of steampunk chic, Hallam’s Greaveburn is a richly-textured and suitably macabre gothic fantasy fit for this cynical age, writes Mark Cantrell

 First published in Cheshire Today

REVIEWING books can be an ethical quandary these days, given all the sock-puppetry shenanigans that’s rippled through the publishing world recently, so before we begin this appraisal of Doncaster-author Craig Hallam’s debut novel, Greaveburn, it’s perhaps wise to point out that this reviewer is also signed up with his publisher Inspired Quill (IQ).

This has no bearing on the nature of this review, of course, but if nothing else it’s a nifty opportunity for some cheap self-publicity (hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it), and it certainly pre-empts any accusations of favouritism on my part. Trust me, I’m a journalist, I don’t play favourites. I even eschewed time-honoured tradition and procured a paperback copy of the book at my own expense.

Now that’s dedication, you might think. Actually, no; this was the reader’s instinct at work. An eye-catching cover, which, on closer inspection really captures the moody spirit of the novel, an intriguing blurb, a suitably sombre introduction, and I have to say that I was snared. All right, I confess there was a certain degree of curiosity too.

So, with that disclaimer-come-disclosure out of the way, what did I actually make of Greaveburn?
Frankly, I enjoyed it. I suspect fantasy aficionados will get a good buzz out of it too. It is certainly a respectable debut for the author.

The novel proved itself an atmospheric page-turner, filled with a delightful array of weird and wonderful characters, all embroiled in the calamities of intrigue, dubious friendships, bitter rivalries, rebellion – and murder most nefarious. 

And what a setting. Hallam’s imagination paints a vivid cityscape, from its cobbled and shaded streets, to the grandiose architecture of its belfry, citadel and palaces; the detail of his prose brings the place bursting to startling life, without ever becoming turgid, as one might mistakenly expect from its baroque Gothicism. 

The cast of characters are as weird and wonderful as the city too; an intriguing mix of eccentricities, foibles, dysfunctionality, and outright sinister intent. But there is honesty of purpose too, kind of, in the figure of the appropriately named Steadfast, for instance. Don’t think this makes him a safe bet as hero material, however. The beleaguered Captain of the Guard is bound by ‘The Duty’ – torn by conflicting loyalties and lost within the timeless intrigues of the city’s ruling families. In Greaveburn, right and wrong are tangled, such that even its heroes are villains.

Then there is Riccall, the disfigured anti-hero exiled into the sewers where the so-called ‘Broken Folk’ reside. These are the disfigured, the disabled, the sick; outcast for their ‘deviance’ from what passes for ‘normal’—and to my mind they proved the most human and humane of all the city’s denizens. They save Riccall’s life, give him shelter and company, yet filled by a desire for justice – or is it really a burning need for vengeance? – he will readily spend their lives in a rebellion against the city that cast him out.

At the heart of it all is innocence in the form of 16-year-old Abrasia, the rightful heir to Greaveburn’s throne. With her father murdered, the city ruled over by the mad Archduke Choler, she lives a virtual recluse in the palace, stalked by the constant fear of assassination. She’s not entirely alone; Steadfast is determined that she will live to succeed to the throne. 

Just remember those conflicting loyalties, however. 

While he is sincere in his duty to the young heiress, he also lives in constant fear of the day he might be called upon to deliver the Archduke’s sealed note heralding Abrasia’s death. He is nothing if not a stickler for duty after all. And he has form – we meet him duly despatching his good friend Durrant, former Captain of the Guard, ally to Abrasia, and unfortunate subject of a sealed death note. Murder or execution? Even Steadfast isn’t sure, not that it stays his hand. 

No, it’s not easy being the good guy in a place like Greaveburn.

Into this moody gothic tale, the author has artfully integrated a steampunk aesthetic, and – whether by design or serendipity – it serves to highlight the city’s stagnant self-absorption.  The technological marvels created by the arrogant genius Loosestrife hold the key to the city’s future, yet they are left to gather dust once they have satisfied his intellectual ego, leaving Greaveburn untouched by their potential. 

But before the intrigues run their course, and the fires of rebellion rock the city’s shaded streets, Loosestrife’s mysterious device known only as ‘The Womb’ will figure large in the tangled lives and deaths of Greaveburn’s imperilled players.

Greaveburn itself is a curious place. This is an ancient city, stifled by a history that seems largely forgotten; enclosed by its baroque and grandiose architecture, as much as it is by its gargantuan defensive walls. Beyond those walls is nothing but wilderness; an empty land that leaves the city trapped in its own self-contained isolation. 

In short, it’s a society with no sense of purpose or vision. The ordinary folk merely get on with their lives, wealthy aristocrats wine and dine and play the rituals of social one-upmanship, and the Choler family, meanwhile, schemes for power. Not that the avaricious dynasty will do anything with this power, of course – other than wield it for its own sake. 

Greaveburn is that kind of city. One might think of it as a dark playground for bored dynasts and oligarchs; but in Hallam’s capable story-telling hands, their cosy little world is about to be turned upside down. 

If there are any gripes, it’s that moving the story forward leaves portions of Hallam’s canvas blank, his world tantalisingly obscured by omissions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t detract from an enjoyable and enthralling novel. In fact, my minor gripe really boils down to wanting to see, taste and hear more of Hallam’s world.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it all, but dammit I want to know. I guess this gripe just goes to show that Hallam has really got his hooks into me. And for an author, that’s no bad gripe at all. 


By Craig Hallam

Inspired Quill

ISBN: 978-1-908600-12-7
Paperback, 262 pages (also available in digital editions)
Price: £7.99 (£2.99 digital)

This article was first published in Cheshire Today, 28 November 2012.

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