Great North Road – Book Review

August 25, 2013 10:13 am

Great North Road is the latest offering from highly acclaimed British sci-fi author Peter F. Hamilton, released in the UK on the 27th of September. Set in the year 2142, this standalone novel explores a not-too-distant future, in which the Earth is connected to planets across the galaxy through a network of ‘gateways’.

The story begins, as many novels do, with a murder: police in Newcastle haul a body from a river, which quickly becomes one of the biggest cases the city police have ever faced. Everything about the murder is strange, from the victim to the weapon, but the most unusual thing about the death is that this method has been seen once before, twenty years ago on the tropical planet of St Libra. In that case, Angela Tramelo was convicted of murdering a wealthy North clone and his household, but she claimed that it had been an alien, a monster that slaughtered those people. No one believed her, but now history has repeated itself. Was Angela wrongly convicted?

Humanity already has its hands full dealing with one extraterrestrial species, the unstoppable and exceedingly alien Zanth. The discovery of another sentient species could change the fate of the entire human race. An expedition is dispatched to St Libra to determine once and for all whether sentient aliens inhabit the planet, and Angela is part of the team. But the expedition gets cut off deep within the St Libra jungle, and something starts picking the team off, one by one. Angela insists the alien is responsible, but not all of her new colleagues are convinced of her innocence…

First off, I have to say that this book is beautifully imagined. The world is excellently crafted and diligently described, creating the most exotic, futuristic landscapes believable. Hamilton sets the scene so well that the book sometimes seems as much a map as a novel, offering flawless directions around a world that doesn’t even exist.

Hamilton first throws us into the snow-covered, high-tech city of future Newcastle, where every surface is covered in ‘smartdust’, which monitors every move made by the city’s inhabitants. From this Earthly base, the story then soars around the galaxy, introducing world after exotic world, from the lavishly decadent New Monaco to the tropical paradise of St Libra, on which the majority of the story takes place.

The story has a refreshingly complex plot, which kept me guessing in a way that a novel hasn’t done for a while. As unpredictable as the British weather, it just keeps twisting, subtly hinting but never providing enough detail as to make its mysteries transparent. Every time I thought I had it figured out, it threw another curve at me and proved me wrong. This story will keep you in the dark until the very end.

One of Great North Road’s strongest features is its excellent characterisation, from Angela’s sassy, calculating female lead, to the utterly repellent bureaucrats to whom she answers. Every single viewpoint character (and there are quite a few) has a depth and believability that really brings them to life.

And of course, no space opera would be complete without at least one species of alien intent on destroying the human race; in this case that species is the Zanth, the ultimate unstoppable force. The fantastic thing about the Zanth is that they aren’t your usual aliens (no green skin or bulbous heads in sight) – in fact they are about as untypical as you could imagine. The Zanth attack in swarms, a solid mass of abstract shapes and angles that distort spacetime, corrupting everything they touch. The Zanth only play a supporting role in this production, but their existence is a continuous driving force behind the motivations and attitudes of every character.

The only complaint I have with the novel is that the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who is doing what. This issue is most noticeable with the North clones (of which there are many), who tend to have very similar names. Fortunately, the front of the book contains a character list, which proves a very useful tool in keeping track of the main protagonists.

An innovative, fast-paced story set within a beautifully imagined world, Great North Road is a must read for fans of science fiction. Hamilton delivers futuristic action on a grand scale with a masterful touch. This is the first of his novels I’ve read, but if his others are half as good, it will certainly be the first of many.

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