When I was looking for books to bring with me on my trip, I received the mass market paperback edition of Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road. Since this stand-alone novel has been sitting on my "books to read" pile for over a year, I told myself that the time was right to give it a shot! And weighing in at almost 1100 pages, I felt that it would allow me to kill time during those long bus and train rides around Ukraine. Turns out I met many cool people in Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa, so I read the better part of it back home.
This being Hamilton, this doorstopper title is understandably space opera. But what I loved the most about Great North Road was that it is essentially a mix of genres and styles. At times murder mystery work, at times police procedural book, and at times science fiction, for all of its size and cast of characters, the novel remains a surprisingly accessible work of fiction. Hence, if you have yet to try anything by Peter F. Hamilton, Great North Road is the perfect opportunity for you to sample what has made the man the biggest selling science fiction author in the UK.
Here's the blurb:
When attending a Newcastle murder scene, Detective Sidney Hurst finds a dead North family clone. Yet none have been reported missing. And in 2122, twenty years ago, a North clone billionaire was horrifically murdered in the same manner on the tropical planet of St Libra. So, if the murderer is still at large, was Angela Tramelo wrongly convicted? She never wavered under interrogation, claiming she alone survived an alien attack. Investigating this potential alien threat now becomes the Human Defence Agency’s top priority. St Libran bio-fuel is the lifeblood of Earth’s economy and must be secured. A vast expedition is mounted via the Newcastle gateway, and experts are dispatched to the planet – with Angela Tramelo, grudgingly released from prison. But the expedition is cut off deep within St Libra’s rainforests, and the murders begin. Angela insists it’s the alien, but her new colleagues aren’t sure. Did she see an alien, or does she have other reasons for being on St Libra?
Hamilton's evocative prose creates an imagery that makes everything come alive. Be it the cold and windy streets of Newcastle here on Earth, or the jungles of St. Libra, the author's eye for details makes for awesome worldbuilding. One would think that the two main storylines, the murder investigation and the military expedition on St. Libra, would clash and make for an incongruous balance between the panoply of multilayered plotlines, but for the most part it works quite well. As is habitually my wont, I often found myself preferring the occasional fashback scenes that raised as many questions as they provided answers, but that's just me.
Oft-times you find yourself wondering exactly why the narrative switches to an aging surfer dude whose importance in the bigger scheme of things appears to be negligible. There are times when you question the wisdom of having such a high number of POV characters, or why this or that fashback sequence has been inserted in the story. Yet in the end, it all makes sense.
There are three principal protagonists, though their respective importance often shifts as the tale progresses. Detective Sydney Hurst is in charge of the murder case. Colonel Vance Elston leads the St. Libra military expedition. And Angela Tramelo, who is released from prison to help track down the alien responsible for the two murders. All three are solid, well-drawn characters with good backstories. I could maybe have done without Elston's religious fucktardness, but it is part of his character and important to the story. The supporting cast is enormous, and many men and women are also at one point or another POV protagonists. While some of them, such as Corporal Paresh Evitts and Ravi Hendrik, are important to help fill in the blanks, offer another perspective, or help flesh out various storylines, others, such as Saul Howard and Madeleine Hoque, take a long time to reveal their importance. Although there are quite a lot of disparate points of view throughout the novel, by the time I reached the last page I realized that, in order for everything to fit together, they were all more or less needed for the book to work. All except perhaps Ian Lanagin, whose POV doesn't really bring anything to the dance.
For a work of this size, the rhythm is surprisingly crisp. Although there are times when the pace is lagging in one particular plotline, and then things immediately pick up in the following chapter in another storyline. I felt that Hamilton may have let the murder investigation drag for a few chapters, but I figure he needed to synch everything up with the St. Libra expedition so that both plotlines could continue to move forward and make sense. But overall, for a novel of almost 1100 pages, Great North Road features a pretty fluid pace from start to finish.
Given the number of storylines, there is a lot of build-up taking place. So much so that the finale, when it comes, is decidedly abrupt and perhaps not as satisfying as it was meant to be. There are no cliffhangers and pretty much everything is more or less wrapped up. And yet, considering the build-up necessary to get us there, I felt that the ending could have been fleshed out a little more. Mind you, it doesn't take a whole lot away from the overall reading experience. But when an author moves a plot forward for more than a thousand pages, I believe that Hamilton could have elaborated a bit more on the ending without the story losing any steam at the end.
All in all, Peter F. Hamilton's Great North Road is a complex, multilayered space opera/murder mystery that offers plenty of bang for your buck. Indeed, if you are looking for a big and enjoyable book to bring with you on vacation, this is just what the doctor ordered!