(2016) James Barclay, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 412pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20243-6
A helter-skelter ride in the sky. Top Gun meets Dragonlance, with a little grisly organic biotech thrown in, there is no clue in the title of Heart of Granite in what read we are likely to get.
Max Halloran is a drake rider, bonded to his mount, Martha. He flies as part of Inferno-X, the elite fighter wing of the titular, Heart of Granite – a living aircraft carrier that lumbers along the ground. We join him mid-flight, mid-mission, in an action packed aerial dogfight against a continental enemy over Africa. It is fast paced stuff, interwoven with Barclay’s biotech premise of his riders being inside their mounts, in embryonic sacs.
Heart of Granite is an unusual hybrid. There is definitely a sense that the writer is trying to find some clear ground amidst all the influences, but a few things hold that back. One is the character names, all a bit referential to anyone who knows the people immortalised in the book. Nothing wrong with this type of cameo, but there’s a whole catalogue of real life analogues, which proves a little jarring for anyone who knows a few of them.
Secondly, the conspiracy element of the story relies on barely explained the absence of one character for most of the novel and the forbearance of Max, who is continually restrained by his squadron leader Valera. This latter problem nags the mind of the reader as Max lurches from one altercation to the next, accepting the processes and procedures which, despite reassurances to the contrary, are clearly being used against him. When the trap is sprung, the reader is left wondering what might have happened if Max had taken matters into his own hands much earlier.
When Doctor Helena Markov returns, the dysfunctional military hierarchy suddenly starts to pull together and justify its authority. Much of the conflict is smoothed away with her diplomatic cement, making you wonder what kept her away in the first place.
The third problem with the novel is the tone, which works against Barclay at times. There’s definitely a young adult feel to this story, but this cuts against some of the grisly detail in the explanations of the biotech, the themes of addiction, medical experimentation and metamorphosis. The final element that draws the character story of Max and Martha to a conclusion should have had a tragic conclusion, but Barclay appears to back away from this, aiming instead for another series of Top Gun references in the redemption of Max from fugitive to hero of the fleet.
The young adult tone evaporates completely in a key recon scene later in the book. This recon is plot pivotal and the best part of the whole story, written as a gritty Grimdark patrol. It could be a short story in itself, but holds a lens up to the rest of the novel in comparison. Its then that we notice we feel more for the recon team than we do for Max, Martha and their Inferno-X companions.
Heart of Granite is a good, fast-paced read. It has some clever ideas and well-executed set pieces. The aerial dog fighting certainly captures the spirit of some of the best of the genre, but it doesn’t quite emulate them. The biotech premise provides an interesting differentiation from other stories, but the picture of it placed in the mind of the reader is a little gunge and gloop as opposed to guts and gore. This may appeal to younger readers, looking for a novel to devour without looking left or right.
See also Ian's review of Heart of Granite.
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