Planetfall (book 1) by Emma Newman (book review).

In a small colony settlement on a far planet, the appearance of a stranger from outside brings change to the community and unpleasant echoes of the past in Emma Newman’s haunting interstellar tale ‘Planetfall’. It’s a psychological drama with convincingly complex characters and a multi-layered plot that wraps interplanetary colonisation around faith, biology and betrayal.

When a young man named Sung-Soo stumbles into the colony, he provides evidence that others survived the original colonisation effort with people who were thought to be lost and dead. Only slowly is it revealed to us through the pages of the book who those people were and what happened to them. The thousand-strong colony that survives and even thrives at the foot of the City of God leads an existence in precarious balance with the ecosystem.

Their society is centred around a complex faith based on the huge, living edifice that drew them to the planet to start with. Colony leader Mack and engineer Ren, the main viewpoint character, seem to be the only ones who know the truth behind both of these mysteries. Getting to the truth is a long and winding path through Ren’s fears and phobias and via flashbacks of how the mission came about. These flashbacks and occasional replays of colony recordings are not necessarily relayed in chronological order.

Piecing together the whole story becomes like a jigsaw where the relevance or significance of some pieces does not become apparent until another sliver of information slots onto place later on. I was constantly kept on the hook and sometimes left frustrated in my desire to understand Ren’s fears and nightmares.

This is a wonderfully written book, with a highly unusual character in Ren, a character who not only is far from being a hero but who also suffers from crippling anxiety and social inhibitions. This is not evident from the start as we see things only from her eyes and notice nothing out of the ordinary but, as she is forced to confront her problems by newcomer Sung-Soo, the scales fall from our eyes and the significance of little bits of description suddenly become apparent.

The scene late in the book where one of her secrets is brought out into the open, which I shan’t describe for fear of spoiling the plot, is one of the most compelling and heart-rending scenes I have ever read. There is huge emotional investment in this character by Emma Newman, with a troubling back story that is shocking enough to provide convincing reasons for Ren’s state of existence.

Look out, too, for the brief flashback scene early in the book where Ren is deciding what to pack for the trip from Earth. The unexpected emotional payload of this small part of Ren’s back story caught my breath with its subtle power.

There are two further ‘Planetfall’ books, which both look to be not directly related to this novel, but Emma Newman has done plenty to convince me I should read anything else she produces.

Gareth D Jones

March 2018

(pub: Gollancz, 2013. 352 page paperback. Price; £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47322-385-1)

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