Like Gareth L Powell’s previous novel, The Recollection,Ack Ack Macaque is a brisk, entertaining read that fizzes with wild ideas. Unlike The Recollection, it’s completely bonkers…
The titular primate flies a Spitfire and fights Nazi ninjas in a demented virtual reality game version of World War 2, just as he did in the short story of the same name, which originally appeared in Interzone in 2007 (and was voted ‘story of the year’ by that magazine’s readers). You can also find it in the collection of stories called The Last Reef.
In the story, the players and designers of the Ack Ack Macaque game seemed to live in the future of our world, but the novel is set in the year 2053 in a parallel one, where Britain and France joined forces in 1953 to form a ‘European Commonwealth’ under the British monarchy. It’s just as implausible as setting as the never-ending dogfights and zeppelin raids inside the game (and I fear it may scupper any hope of selling French translation rights) but it is entertainingly fleshed out and makes an interestingly off-kilter backdrop for this ripping yarn about murder, mayhem and monkeys.
Most writers would consider that a fighter ace macaque and a parallel reality would be enough big ideas for one book, but Gareth L Powell obviously has big ideas to spare, and garnishes his endlessly twisting thriller plot with brain-stealing serial killers, virtual worlds, attempted coups, cyborgs, the launch of a Mars probe, personality swaps, looming nuclear war, and giant airships which function as independent city-states. Everyone talks in boiler-plated action movie clichés, and it builds towards a climactic showdown with an evil megalomaniac in the best James Bond tradition. (And all this, mind, in a book that doesn’t run much over 300 pages…) It could all be quite exhausting, but it’s done with such obvious enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to be carried along by it.
As usual in Gareth L Powell’s work, romantic love is an important theme – there are two love stories in this book, one between student activist Julie and prince-on-the-run Merovech, the other between Victoria Valois and her estranged and now sort-of-dead husband Paul – but all the human actors are pushed slightly out of the limelight by the irrepressible figure of Ack Ack Macaque himself, the gun-toting, cigar-chomping monkey who escapes from his virtual world early on and goes on to steal all the book’s major scenes.
He also seems to have escaped into our world now. He has his own Twitter account, and an Ack Ack Macaque prequel drawn by Nick Dyer will appear in the next issue of 2000AD comic (available from 12th December at UK newsagents, or in digital form here). It will be interesting to see where he goes next…
Ack Ack Macaque will be published by Solaris Books in January 2013 (but December 2012 in the U.S and Canada). You can find out more on Gareth’s website.
For the last few years I’ve been keeping my occasional book and film reviews separate from my personal stuff and news about my own books, by publishing them on my other blog, The Solitary Bee. But this blog gets so many more hits than the Bee that it’s a bit unfair to the authors I review to hide them away there, so in future I’ll be posting reviews here as well. If you haven’t read my reviews of recent books by Tim Maughan, Gareth L Powell, Kim Lakin-Smith, Deadly Knitshade, and Dave Shelton, you can find them all here.
Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard
I’ve sometimes been heard to say that science fiction will be the Next Big Thing in YA fiction, or at least that it ought to be. There have certainly been an awful lot of more-or-less SF-ish ‘dystopian’ novels recently, but most of them don’t seem very interested in actual science, so it’s nice to welcome one which is:
The first volume of a projected trilogy, Jonathan L Howard’sKatya’s World is set on a distant planet called Russalka which has been inhabited by colonists of mostly Russian ancestry. Since Russalka has no land, only an endless, storm-swept ocean, the inhabitants mostly live in pressurised environments beneath the sea. The prologue explains how and why this came to happen, and how the colony came to be first abandoned by, and then involved in a war with, its one-time masters on Earth.
The prologue is, unfortunately, the book’s major weak point. Oh, how the heart sinks when a SF novel kicks off with a whole chapter-length chunk of exposition! And it’s largely unnecessary in this case, because all the information it contains could easily have been revealed as and when we need to know it, in the course of the action. In fact, I’d be ready to bet that that’s how it was originally intended to be revealed: the prologue reads like something tacked on at the behest of an editor who thought young readers might be confused if everything wasn’t neatly explained up front. But don’t worry: as soon as it’s out of the way and the actual story gets going, Katya’s World exerts a grip which won’t let up till the final page.
Russalka is a greasy, grimy, ‘used future’, reminiscent in some ways of films like Alien, in which mankind has somehow developed interstellar travel and anti-gravity devices but continues to build claustrophobic submarines with technology pretty close to our own, and to indulge in familiar forms of inhumanity and political oppression. It’s full of shadowy cabins, dank corridors and the dim glow of computer screens, and although Jonathan L Howard doesn’t waste many words describing his settings it’s all very atmospheric.
The wider backdrop is interesting too: an uneasy political situation in the aftermath of war, with growing tensions between the submarine cities and the surface-dwelling Yagizban Enclaves. Into this mix come swimming a mysterious and hugely powerful war machine, the Leviathan, left over from the conflict with Earth and connected in some sinister way with Kane, the political prisoner whom young Katya Kuriakova and her uncle are ordered to transport aboard their civilian cargo submarine.
Needless to say, their apparently simple voyage goes quickly and desperately wrong, and before long Katya is involved with traitors, pirates, and terrifying artificial intelligences. There are quite a few chases, firefights and escapes, and several well-described submarine battles. There is plenty of awesome technology both under and above the sea, presumably all based on plausible science (I confess I can’t imagine how the anti-gravity machines are supposed to work, but what do I know?) and a lot of the action is built neatly out of the way submarines actually operate. There’s even a floating city called FP1, for people who like really obscure movie references.
Most importantly, the characters are engaging. All these submarines would quickly grow dull if we didn’t care about the people they contain, but Katya is a strong and likeable heroine, convincingly frightened for much of the time, but quick-thinking and intelligent enough to come up with sound solutions to most of the problems which the plot hurls at her. Kane is an intriguing figure, too – is he a villain or not? – and the rest of the cast (mostly pirates, submariners and gruff military types) are nicely rounded out, so that the good ones have their bad points and the bad ones are never wholly bad: even the charmless Officer Sukhalev gets a chance to shine.
And at the end there is an actual ending, which is always a worry when you start the first book of a trilogy. Plenty of loose ends remain a-dangling, ready to be gathered up in the next book, but this story concludes with a proper, spectacular climax rather than a cliff-hanger. It’s a highly effective, thought-provoking YA novel, and it left me looking forward to the next volume.