Thin Air

When I heard that Richard Morgan would return to science fiction and that his new novel would be set in the same universe as his bestselling book Thirteen, I was pretty excited. The author's fantasy gig did not turn out to be as appealing as it was meant to be and I was pleased to learn that Morgan would revisit his old stomping grounds. Even better, Thin Air reads as a stand-alone work and there is no need to be conversant with what took place in Thirteen to fully enjoy his latest novel. Do read it if you haven't, though, for it is a hell of a book! But you don't have to do it beforehand in order to understand the plot of Thin Air.

Here's the blurb:

Richard Morgan has always been one of our most successful SF authors with his fast-moving and brutal storylines, blistering plots and a powerful social conscience behind his work.

And now he's back, with his first SF novel for eight years . . . and it promises to be a publication to remember.

An ex-corporate enforcer, Hakan Veil, is forced to bodyguard Madison Madekwe, part of a colonial audit team investigating a disappeared lottery winner on Mars. But when Madekwe is abducted, and Hakan nearly killed, the investigation takes him farther and deeper than he had ever expected. And soon Hakan discovers the heavy price he may have to pay to learn the truth.

In terms of worldbuilding, basically all the action takes place on Mars. And though the colonists' days are over and decades behind, the terraforming process was never a true success on the red planet. I wasn't expecting something as in-depth as what Kim Stanley Robinson produced in his celebrated trilogy, but other than mentions of the different gravity and similar details, Mars and its harsh environment never truly came alive the way I expected them to in this book. If anything, it felt as though this plot could have taken place in any city back on Earth. It's not a disappointment per se, and it doesn't take anything away from the overall reading experience. And yet, the author has accustomed us to more impressive worldbuilding in the past.

Hakan Veil is Morgan's typical badass, alpha-male, combat operative protagonist. When he came up with Takeshi Kovacs back in the day, this sort of main character was kind of new and somewhat refreshing. But after all these years and every single one of the author's works featuring a similar protagonist, some readers might find that redundant. Personally, though there is a certain sense of déjà vu regarding the characterization, I had no problem with Veil, for he turned out to be exactly the type of lead this story required. I particularly enjoyed the fact that overriders need to spend months in hibernation, and then wake up in what is known as the "hot" phase. During that period, an overrider like Veil possesses nearly superhuman reflexes and combat abilities. The supporting cast is nothing to write home about, but there are some exceptions such as Madison Madekwe, Nikki Chakana, and Hannu Holmstrom. I could have done without the James Bond-esque sex scenes, but what can you do? It's a Richard Morgan novel, after all!

Given its shortcomings, why then did I enjoy Thin Air to such a degree? I guess it has to do with the multilayered and always surprising plot. With the Earth audit supposedly meant to unveil all the corruption that plagues Mars and the subsequent abduction of Veil's charge, every clue that the overrider unveils reveals another twist. There is balls-to-the-wall action scenes, plenty of political intrigue, corruption at every level, and when the proverbial shit hits the fan Hakan Veil doesn't necessarily know who he can trust. Mind you, it's impossible for the reader to solve the various mysteries that make up the plot of this novel, yet it's always interesting and exciting for us to witness Veil connecting the dots.

Thin Air does suffer from a few pacing issues, especially due to its slow beginning. But once the author has established the overrider's special "running hot" phase and the main storylines, things quicly pick up and the rhythm moves at the very good clip from here on out. The endgame packs a powerful punch that delivers on all fronts and Morgan caps it all off with an exclamation point with a satisfying ending.

Thin Air is nowhere near as good as Altered Carbon, Thirteen, or Broken Angels turned out to be. And yet, given Richard Morgan's talent and originality, even not at his best he can produce better and more engaging books than most of his peers writing today. Moreover, I believe it's unfair to expect everything he writes to capture the imagination of the masses the way he did with Altered Carbon. In the end, if you're looking for an action-packed scifi thriller with a decidedly convoluted plot featuring a kick-ass main character, look no further. Thin Air is exactly what the doctor ordered!

The final verdict: 8/10

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