(2020) Adrian Tchaikovsky, Macmillan, £18.99, hrdbk, 597pp, ISBN 978-1-509-86588-8
Two young ladies, conspiracy-theory cryptozoologists, Lee and Mal, fall in love as they pursue claims that mysterious bird-men are terrorizing Bodmin Moor (as if the Cornish region didnít have enough problems with its supposed giant feral cat monster).
On location on the Moor the women witness the apparent slaughter of a farmer they hoped to interview when he is savaged by the viscous birdmen and one of the girls, Mal, is abducted away to a parallel Earth. Lee is left deeply depressed, frightened and unable to account for the events she witnessed.
Four years later, after much questioning by the police, Lee discovers that her friend may still be alive and warning her of threats by entities from other Earths. Some police and MI5 officers are equally caught up in the X-Files / Matrix struggle that leaps often confusingly between many extraordinary worlds and dimensions.
Julian Sabreur is the leading MI5 agent, full of romantic James Bond notions of cool, but realizing that he is nothing like him in bravado or charming personality. He is assigned to protect a theoretical physicist, Kamal Khan, but he finds that those threatening her are not human assassins.
Cutaway interlude chapters feature rather dull lectures by a leading Californian professor, Ruth Emerson, describing the rise and evolution of life on the other worlds, which often gets set back by mass extinction events only to start anew. Tchaikovsky has fun with sentient dinosaurs and giant warring trilobites but the run-around for the not quite believing how weird their lives are becoming humans is rather over-stretched before reaching any kind of conclusion or explanation.
There are many stories of alternative Earths and multiverses but they donít usually all happen at once, with the thin borders between the parallel dimensions disintegrating so the characters are plunged into an ever changing landscape of cavemen figures (named Stigs, presumably after Clive Kingís 1963 novel, Stig of the Dump) and giant rats.
Sometimes characters are saved from one certain doom by being exposed to the portal to another one instead. It all gets rather kaleidoscopic, but Tchaikovsky does create some very impressive worlds here. The hard science tends to get very heavy and give the book a textbook feel.
The characters are well realised with three of them, Mal, Lee and Kamal are LGBT. There are way too many pop culture references involved as Tchaikovsky underlines his inspirations: Narnia, Michael Crichtonís Jurassic Park, James Bond, and Stig of the Dump among them. Characters get little breathing space as they run or get hurled from one crisis conflict to the next. The opening chapters leading to the vanishing on Bodmin are well handled but after that there is a sense of a cake baked with too many ingredients, so all the flavours are in danger of cancelling one another out, echoing in many ways with the narrative what is going on with the worlds in collision.
This is an extremely ambitious work and overall Tchaikovsky carries it well, but its ideas swamp over one another instead of developing properly. This feels like a six book series crammed into a single lengthy volume. It is hard to imagine the characters, if not the fabric of the many realities themselves, disintegrating under such extreme and rapid changes.
See also Mark's take on The Doors of Eden.
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