(2020) S. J. Morden, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 376pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22854-2
S. J. Morden is otherwise published as Simon Morden and is a well-published British writer whose works include the Philip K Dick Award winning Metrodome post-apocalyptic novels. He’s a PhD-holding Teaching Assistant and, if Gallowglass is anything to go by, a mighty fine writer.
Set in near space in the near future the planet is, predictably, falling apart leaving the rich ever richer and the poor scrambling for land that’s not under water. As the novel opens, 23 year old Jaap Van der Veerden (‘Jack’) is attempting to escape from the compound his parents, some of the wealthiest people on the planet, have effectively imprisoned him in. They want to join him in becoming ‘transhuman’ – effectively immortal – but he’s more interested in living a life and doing something useful. Via a series of mishaps and misadventures he ends up as ‘Jack Astrogator’, getting the crew of a salvage ship alongside an asteroid packed with trillion dollars’ worth of iron and other precious metals. The mission brief is to rescue a ‘gallowglass’ – someone who has staked a claim on the asteroid – and then get the whole pile of rock back Earthwards where it can be broken up and everyone can get rich. But lies, greed, double-crossing and hubris ensue so things don’t go entirely to plan.
For one thing the ‘gallowglass’ is a 15 year old girl with a sense of entitlement and a take no prisoners attitude to what she wants. For another, the crew start fighting over the spoils. And accidents will happen…
This is partly redemption story, partly high speed adventure. It’s a standalone novel (a rare but welcome occurrence these days) but one I’d happily buy any sequel to. The setting and the timeframe make it Expanse territory, though the writing style’s more British and the pace and tone are different. It probably shares some genetic material with Ian McDonald’s excellent Luna series, too, which is to say it’s in good company and it holds its own.
This book is very easy to read (notwithstanding some overly technical pages describing a shuttle touching down in minimal gravity on a spinning, high velocity object surrounded by slowly rotating space debris). The characters are well drawn and there are some deftly played out choices some of them have to make. There’s an interesting parallel set of dilemmas – Jack learns what he’d be prepared to do, to give up wealth and fame, and some of his crewmates learn just what they’d do to get hold of it. Jack can never truly escape his past, no matter how short he cuts his hair, but how he reconciles himself to it makes for interesting reading.
Gallowglass is a solid, well written, near-space science fiction story. Recommended.
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