The City, 2067. China has overrun and conquered most of Eurasia and the stacks of the City now sprawl across the ruins of old Europe. In the Middle-East, the Chinese meet fanatical resistance in the form of suicide bombers and terror tactics, whilst across the oceans the shattered remnants of the United States try to fight back. But the Son of Heaven, Tsao Ch'un, will brook no opposition and prepares the largest military campaign in human history to bring North American under his rule. But as armies march and missiles fly, Tsao Ch'un himself, now old and paranoid, is becoming increasingly unstable. As the seeds of civil war are sewn, will the new world be destroyed in its infancy?
Daylight on Iron Mountain is the second novel in David Wingrove's 'recasting' of his epic Chung Kuo series, which is now planned to expand across twenty novels. Daylight was originally the closing part of the first book, Son of Heaven, a newly-written prequel novel, but at his editor's suggestion Wingrove pulled out and radically expanded the Daylight segment into a full, 350-page novel. This turns out to have been a masterstroke of an idea: Son of Heaven was effective in a low-key kind of way, but as I said in my review I was concerned that it didn't really seem to be setting the scene for a colossal twenty-book series. Daylight ends such concerns in one fell swoop.
Daylight on Iron Mountain may be (relatively) short on page count but is rammed to overflowing with political intrigue, corporate scheming, desperate struggles for human survival and, in the final section, a mind-boggling war which is vast in scope. One storyline follows the political infighting as the Seven (Ch'ung's key advisors) realise how unstable their leader has become and debate what is to be done, whilst another sees Jake Reed (the main character in the first novel) struggling to survive in the new world of the City. A further subplot sees General Jiang Lai, an honest man in a dishonest world, trying to keep his head above water as enemies gather on all sides.
Wingrove juggles these plots with skill. He doesn't have the page count to indulge them in the way an epic fantasy writer could, so he keeps the storylines moving rapidly and in tandem, flitting from one to another. At times the book feels a little rushed - the concluding conflict feels like it should be unfolding over weeks or months, not just days - but Wingrove doesn't neglect some key scenes of character-building, or employing thematic irony (the epilogue in particular features an element that feels like something out of the Soviet Union, or indeed Chinese Communist history) to hint at greater events to come.
As well as being rather slow, the main criticism that could be aimed at Son of Heaven was that it had a tendency to drift towards stereotyping in its portrayal of the Chinese characters. It's a massive relief that this problem does not exist in Daylight on Iron Mountain. The characters, Chinese or otherwise, are a gallery of heroes, villains, the selfish and the selfless, or people simply trying to survive however they can. Normally cold-hearted lawyers show unexpected compassion, one of the most powerful men on Earth gives way to grief when he pays the ultimate price for victory and generals take time to consider the moral implications of the deaths they are about to cause. Unfortunately, this nuanced approach to characterisation does not extend to the primary 'villain', Tsao Ch'un himself, who is more of a cliched antagonist with a side-line in personally torturing prisoners and smashing up priceless antiques with a baseball bat to show how evil he is.
Beyond this element, Daylight on Iron Mountain improves on Son of Heaven in every single way. There's a larger and far more interesting cast of characters, there's some impressive action and war sequences and there's a relentless drive to the book's pacing as the characters are swept up in the march of history. A few characters (most notably Ch'un) suffer a little from the fast - sometimes rushed - pacing, but overall this is a compelling, page-turning SF epic which leaves the reader eager for more.
Daylight on Iron Mountain (****½) will be published on 1 November 2011 in the UK. There is no American publisher for the series at this time, but copies should be easily available through the Book Depository.