(2007) Neal Asher, Tor, £17.99, hbk, 474pp, ISBN 1-4050-5500-0
This is Asher's twelth book and so one can expect it to be a pretty competently written work, and it is, with a plot that engages you from the outset and that contains plenty of twists and turns and action that is stuffed full of epic set pieces. If there is a criticism to be made here, it is with style. The novel is set in Asher's 'Polity' universe, where humans are now ruled (in a perfectly benevolent fashion) by artificial intelligences. Space Opera being that genre of science fiction that you either love or loathe, I don't think Hilldiggers is going to offer anything new to the genre... Whereas Alastair Reynolds for example manages to consistently add inventiveness and originality to his work, Asher seems to be a die-hard sci-fi thriller writer and is a very good one at that. The story involves a pair of alien worlds that have been engaged in a bitter war. This war ends abruptly when an alien entity, named the 'Worm', appeared amidst the battlefields and was captured by one faction. The knowledge gained from this creature gave them the technology to win the war, and now the Polity has decided to make contact with these civilisations. But, almost inevitably, the Polity's agent, David McCrooger, finds civil unrest growing there...
It is a pretty compelling read through a good third of the novel, where Asher keeps the action coming, and he moves through his plot with a good fast pace. But it seems to slow down after a while - once the events of the novel result in outright civil war, the narrative gets bogged down in some huge space battles taking place involving the phenomenally powerful 'hilldiggers' of the title. The tactical manoeuvres of these ships didn't add much to the story, despite being directed by one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Harald Strone, the key villain of the book, manages to sustain a lot of your interest thanks to the dual intentions he seems driven by. Both his deep sense of honour and dedication, undermined by an unearthly determination to re-assert military authority over his world. But the latter parts of the novel become something of a slog as one waits for the next plot development, usually from main character David McCrooger. It may not help that some of the foreshadowing in earlier parts of the novel does give a lot away early on, but that might be something to do with the clumsily written blurb on the cover. Over all, Hilldiggers was an enjoyable novel, but I just felt it did not hold up when sat next to the work that a lot of other notable space opera authors put out. Instead, it is a thrilling adventure novel involving huge spaceships, trans-dimensional alien entities, intergalactic war and heroes that will not die, no matter how much physical violence you inflict upon them. Your standard space opera, then...
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