(2004) Neal Asher, Tor, £17.99, hrdbk, 406 pp, ISBN 1-405-00137-2
This is a deviation from the norm for Neal Asher as far as I'm aware, as we see him abandon the familiar territory of the worlds of the Polity and strike out into a perhaps more fantastical world.
The novel begins in a bleak Britain of the near future inhabited by Polly, a prostitute whose life is limping along supported by drugs. This life changes abruptly, however, when she is first embedded with a powerful Artificial Intelligence and subsequently touches a fragment of some unknown beast intent on dragging her back through time towards a hidden goal. By accident, a vat grown government agent, Tack, is dragged along with her. As she journeys back through time, snippets of causes and reasons are divulged at the beginning of each chapter and the overall plot slowly becomes apparent.
The complexity of having the underlying reasons for Polly's excursion into the past explained by a paragraph or two at the start of each chapter works quite well. As reader I was jollied along not only by anticipation of Polly's fate, but also by this slow revelation of the far future's Heliothane Dominion and the destructive war which led to Polly's plight and the enigmatic "preterhuman" Cowl. As the novel progresses, characters from the pre-chapter snippets start to appear in the main thread of the story and more pieces of the puzzle appear. I suppose Cowl reads as part mystery and part action. I really enjoyed discovering the true nature of the conflict and as Cowl (the character) was gradually exposed became completely embroiled in that conflict.
This novel is perhaps not for the faint hearted as from the very outset it involves the type of designer violence we've come to expect from Asher. The spectacular finale is no exception; if Asher could write in slow motion, I believe he would if only to enhance this violence. If you don't mind this full-blooded approach, Cowl could well be your book of the year.
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