Fiction Reviews

Great North Road

(2012) Peter F. Hamilton, Macmillan, hrdbk, 1,100pp, ISBN 978-0-230-75005-0


Peter Hamilton writes great doorsteps of novels, and that’s both appealing and intimidating. His books tend to come in trilogies, or at least in pairs, and generally weigh in at way over 1,000 words a time. Which is why I was delighted his latest, Great North Road, was available as a lightweight Kindle download, and why it promised to be more or less a standalone work.

For anyone not familiar with Peter Hamilton, his brand of accessible space opera/thriller, made famous with his Night’s Dawn trilogy, mixes complex plotlines with multiple viewpoints which despite their technobabble (he (mis)uses the word ‘quantum’ a lot) hook you in and will not let you go until you finish.

Great North Road is one of these. Set in the next century, interstellar travel is possible using tethered wormhole ‘gateways’, and humans have been settling whatever Earth like planets they can find. One of these is St Lucia, orbiting Sirius. It is tethered to Newcastle (the one in the north of England) and now the source of the majority of Earth’s fuel – biodiesel, produced from alga farms on the new planet. St Lucia is a strange place, covered in vegetation but with no animal life and, needless to say, it has secrets.

The plot starts in Newcastle as a murder mystery with a twist. A body is recovered from the river with strange but distinctive knife wounds – signature of an unexplained but probably alien attach in St Lucia twenty years before. Trouble is, nobody believes the aliens exist, and the victim is a member of a vast clone-based family grouping, the Norths, who effectively run St Lucia and the biodiesel trade.

The investigation gets nowhere, but the alien theory gains credibility and the investigation into the old attack – also against the Norths – is reopened. A vast military convoy heads through the St Lucia gateway to track down the alien, but then things start to get very sticky.

Multiple viewpoints make it difficult to work out who to follow (especially as Hamilton is a bit of a head-hopper) but our heroes seem to be Sid, a Newcastle policeman in charge of the initial murder investigation and Angela, blamed and jailed for the original alien attack and sprung from prison to help track it down, Angela is particularly interesting and has a complex background, gradually revealed. One quirk is that she is a ‘one-in-ten’, genetically altered to live ten times longer than normal. And that makes her a classic Hamilton hero, able to span centuries and turn up in multiple stories. There are plenty of these in the Commonwealth series of novels (Paula Myo is my favourite) and Angela (of the multiple surnames) fits the pattern well.

There are aliens, of course, though the main bad guys barely make an appearance. They are the Zanth, whose role seems to be to invade planets and transform them until they are uninhabitable. This is a bit inexplicable (particularly to anyone reading the novel) and the menace does not seem real since no-one’s seen or communicated with them. Earth is on high alert against this threat so the thought of another alien species causing trouble is very motivating. The St Lucia alien, if indeed he exists, is a classic horror film monster, and people die one by one as they desperately head for home as St Lucia falls apart.

This is a big book, and it occasionally trips itself up. The Norths fit into three groupings, and all the members of the first group have first names beginning with an ‘A’, the second with a ‘B’ and the third with a ‘C’. Unfortunately there are an awful lot of them, and that makes it very difficult sometimes to work out which North is being talked about. I had to consult the glossary of characters frequently (it runs to many pages) which would have been helpful if it had been complete.

So, typical Hamilton. Does it work? In the main, yes, and I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel where those pesky Zanth start their swarming. But I could have done without Sid and the annoying Geordie cops (do Geordies really punctuate their dialogue with ‘crap on it’’) and I really wish Hamilton would sit down for a week and cut out all the meandering bits before he sent the text to his publisher. Then we would have a great 600 page novel instead of an over-bloated 1,000 page one, Still, recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

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