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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Hilldiggers" by Neal Asher

Official Neal Asher Website
Neal Asher’s Blog
Order “HilldiggersHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Interview with Neal Asher
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Review of "Brass Man"

Since starting Fantasy Book Critic, I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to a number of talented authors that I might otherwise have never read. One of my most pleasant experiences was discovering the works of Neal Asher, a prolific science fiction writer who is steadily becoming a force in the genre and one of my favorites. So, even though I’ve only read “Gridlinked” and “Brass Man” out of the eight novels, two short story collections and a novella that Mr. Asher has so far produced, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to review his latest book “Hilldiggers.” (UK Only Release Date: July 6, 2007).

First off, according to the interview I did with Mr. Asher, “Hilldiggers” is a self-contained story that is set in the same universe as his other Polity books, but takes place after the events in “The Skinner”, which in turn, occurred many years after the Ian Cormac adventures. So, anyone who has read any of Mr. Asher’s Polity novels, even if it’s only a couple like I have, should be somewhat familiar with certain concepts found in “Hilldiggers” like the Polity structure, artificial intelligences (AI), chainglass, etc., and it wasn’t hard to see such references to the planet Spatterjay and other Polity history either. Of course, if you haven’t read any of Mr. Asher’s books, then “Hilldiggers” is an excellent starting point for readers new to the author, though I still recommend checking out some of his earlier releases first.

Now, much like two other SF novels I recently completed – Richard K. Morgan’sBlack Man/Thirteen” and Joel Shepherd’sBreakaway” – “Hilldiggers” is an epic, politically driven opera that draws upon current events, yet is conformed to the author’s own unique vision. In the case of “Hilldiggers”, the situation revolves around two planets, Sudoria and Brumal, who have enjoyed twenty years of peace following a catastrophic war that was decisively won by the Sudorians. Since the end of the war, three factions were established – Fleet, Sudorian Parliament and Orbital Combine. At this point, Polity enters the picture interested in developing relations with the two planets, but because opinions are divided on this matter between the opposing groups, a Polity Consul Assessor is sent in to gauge the situation and hopefully initiate a possible alliance. From there, the Assessor becomes entangled in a variety of tug-of-war scheming by all of the different factions involved including the Polity, and the thicker the plotting gets, the higher the stakes become. As expected in a Neal Asher novel, there are plenty of other interesting subplots woven into the main story – an alien entity known as the Worm, an ominous ‘Shadowman’ that seems to haunt the Sudorians, a controversial book written by the mysterious Uskaron that supposedly reveals the truth behind the war – and because everything happening in “Hilldiggers” is cunningly connected, by the time readers finish the book, a number of shocking truths will be revealed…

Looking back at my review of “Brass Man”, one area that I noted as weaker than others was the characterization. Obviously I haven’t seen what kind of progress Mr. Asher has made as a writer with his latest novels “Prador Moon”, “Polity Agent” and “The Voyage of Sable Keech”, but characterization is definitely not an issue with “Hilldiggers”. In fact, I can safely say that “Hilldiggers” is a character-driven novel. First, we have the aforementioned Consul Assessor David McCrooger, an Old Captain/hooper from the planet Spatterjay who relates events via a first-person narrative and reminded me some of Ian Cormac, but is actually quite different. McCrooger starts out the book as virtually immortal & invincible due to a virus contracted on Spatterjay, but because of a competing virus, the planets’ harsh environments and other circumstances, David eventually becomes much more vulnerable physically and has to rely on brains rather than brawn. Providing additional third-person point of views are the Sudorian quadruplets – Yishna, Harald, Rhodane and Orduval Strone – who are the novel’s most developed characters because of the Retroacts, and arguably the most important. Then there is Director Gneiss of Corisanthe Main, the most enigmatic of the bunch, and Tigger, a tiger-shaped Polity drone who, like Mr. Crane, Dragon, etc., was a lot of fun to follow, though he didn’t have nearly enough face time. In short, I was quite pleased with the characterization as a whole, and I don’t think “Hilldiggers” would have been nearly as effective if the characters weren’t as strong as they were.

As far as the other elements in the book, Neal Asher performs at a consistently high level. In particular, the pacing is quick even though the book is not as action-packed as “Brass Man” or “Gridlinked”; the plot is complex and intelligently crafted without being confusing or, with some politically-driven SF that I’ve read, preachy; and the science aspects – the vernacular, the unique ecosystems found on Sudoria/Brumal, the Worm, etc. – remain one of the author’s strong points. Overall, I was very impressed with “Hilldiggers”, partly because of how much stronger a writer I think Mr. Asher has become, and partly because of how different the novel was from what I was expecting, yet was just as entertaining as anything I’ve read this year. In truth, I would probably rate “Hilldiggers” right up there alongside Stephen Hunt’sThe Court of the Air” and Richard K. Morgan’sBlack Man/Thirteen” as one of my favorite science fiction novels of 2007, and I strongly urge readers out there to check out a Neal Asher novel if you haven’t already. I can’t guarantee that you’ll love the author’s material as much as I do, but if you give Neal Asher a chance, more likely than not, you’ll come away impressed…

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