James Barclay is a British author of epic fantasy novels, most of which have been set on or around Balaia, the fictional continent where the adventures of the heroic band of mercenaries known as The Raven take place. Barclay’s most recent ‘Elves’ trilogy, which I reviewed here between 2010 and 2014, was set in the same world but thousands of years prior to the birth of The Raven. All three books were excellent, providing a radically fresh vision of a race too often seen purely through the prism of Tolkien’s books.
Given this pedigree, Barclay’s new novel initially looks like a total departure. ‘Heart Of Granite’ isn’t fantasy, it’s Science Fiction. It’s a surprising move and raises an obvious question: Does this author of twelve epic fantasy novels understand the SF genre well enough to be able to write it convincingly? The answer, I’m pleased to say, is an emphatic yes.
The story is set on Earth in the middle of the twenty-third century. The whole world is at war, fighting for control of land and the resources to be found on or under it. However, the ships, planes and tanks of the twenty-first century have, by this time, been replaced by gigantic living vehicles, created using alien DNA discovered on an asteroid. Foremost amongst these alien creatures are the drakes, dragons in all but name, which are flown and controlled by the bravest of the brave.
The hero of our story is Max Halloran, said to be the best drake pilot in the entire world, particularly if he’s the one doing the talking. Max is in the Armed Forces of the United Europa power bloc, which is fighting for control of the Mid-Africa Region. He’s bold, brash and often arrogant but, in the air, his skills are unmatched. However, like every other drake pilot, Max faces a future that’s likely to be brutal and short, even if he doesn’t get killed in action. Flying a drake involves sharing your thoughts with theirs. Problem is, the drakes are large, highly intelligent alien creatures. Eventually, every drake invades their pilot’s mind, generally driving them insane. How long this takes is variable but the end point is inevitable, if the individual doesn’t retire in time. Given how emotionally addictive the experience of flying a drake is, few choose the safe route. So all drake pilots live fast, knowing that they’re likely to die young.
If that sounds bad, it’s about to get much worse. The President of United Europa needs a quick victory in Mid-Africa to ensure his re-election. When he puts pressure on his military commanders, they come up with a dubious plan that could speed the end of the war but at a terrible cost. When Max accidentally uncovers the truth, he decides to act. Not being possessed of much subtlety, Max’s attempt to sort things out makes them an awful lot worse. Particularly for him. Can he get out of trouble and make sure the truth is exposed for all to see?
Max Halloran is a fascinating lead character. He initially comes across as a stereotypical fighter jock, long on natural skill, testosterone and attitude but short on brains. In the early chapters of the book, he repeatedly reminded me of Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell, Tom Cruise’s character in ‘Top Gun’, in the first act of that film. In other words, annoying. Just like Maverick, he finally starts to grow up when the life of one of his team is put in danger. His loyalty to the other members of his drake pilot squadron is admirable. The extent to which he’s willing to risk his own future to protect them quickly transformed him, for this reader at least, from irritating smartarse to plucky hero. What he has to go through later in the book takes him well beyond that point and towards greatness.
This isn’t a solo gig, though. Max is part of an ensemble cast of drake pilots, senior officers, infantry soldiers, bureaucrats, engineers and the countless others that comprise a functioning army on the move. Barclay brings the supporting characters to life with great economy, differentiating one from another quickly and clearly. The major characters are complex individuals shown to be grappling with difficult dilemmas with no easy answers. It’s possible to sympathise with all of them. Well, nearly all of them. I didn’t warm to President Corsini from start to finish but, then, I don’t think I was supposed to.
In my reviews of Barclay’s previous fantasy novels, I’ve frequently remarked on the strength of his portrayals of the non-human characters. This is a skill he transfers effortlessly to ‘Heart Of Granite’. The drakes that Max and his colleagues fly are majestic, intelligent creatures which I am desperate to find out more about, while the anatomy and physiology of ‘Heart Of Granite’, the eponymous alien behemoth which functions as a gigantic living aircraft carrier for Max’s squadron and so many others is described in sufficiently comprehensive and occasionally noisome detail that the squeamish may at certain points wish to take a deep breath before continuing. The level of invention here is absolutely terrific.
More generally, Barclay’s SF world-building is excellent. There is little to no handwavium here. All aspects of the part-alien biotech that has created the military technologies of the twenty-third century are given a rational explanation, while the world-wide interest in the destructive potential of those very technologies is shown to be a consequence of a battle for resources, driven by widespread ecological destruction wrought by rampant over-consumption. There are some fascinating environmental and ethical issues under discussion here, even if Barclay never lets them get in the way of telling a great story.
As someone who works on the margins of politics, I particularly enjoyed Barclay’s portrayal of the low politics of a president seeking re-election and the senior military commanders who see future career advancement in meeting the President’s ambitions, regardless of the cost to the men and women under their command. There is perhaps a slight cynicism in the portrayal of some of these characters. However, given the actions of certain politicians in the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit decision in June, any such cynicism no longer seems unduly misplaced.
‘Heart Of Granite’ is an enthralling military SF novel which mixes heroic characters and stunning biotechnology with power politics and naked ambition, creating something genuinely new and unique in the process. Barclay may have been known solely as a fantasy author up till now, but that’s no longer true. He can write SF with the best of them and I can’t wait to see where he takes this story next. Warmly recommended.
(pub: Gollancz. 416 page enlarged paperback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-473-20243-)