If you were to cut me in half, it’s quite possible you would see ‘PFH fangirl’ written across the section as if I were a big stick of rock. Having spent a considerable amount of time over the last month hefting around his Brickbooks, I was only too happy to embrace the latest – Great North Road – although I must admit to cheating by kindling it. My car weighs less than Great North Road in hardback.
Great North Road tells two stories, one a detective murder mystery story based in Newcastle and the other a thriller, a monster hunt, set on the tropical planet of St Libra. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
As the novel begins, a body is pulled out of the Tyne in Newcastle, its heart shredded by five razor fingers. Investigator Sidney Hurst has two (actually, he probably has a lot more than that) problems to overcome. The first is that the victim is a member of the North family; a hugely powerful dynasty comprising three generations (the fours aren’t doing so well) of clones, all created from three original brothers. And yet, this lost soul is unclaimed. All the clones are accounted for. The other problem is that this crime replicates another committed twenty years previously when one of the original three brothers, along with his household, was slaughtered in exactly the same way. One of his harem, Angela Tramelo, the only escapee, has served the years since in prison, following an interrogative torture in which she proclaimed that the murders had been committed by a monster that she had escaped.
While Sidney continues to investigate the crime on Earth, tracing the twisted threads through the North enterprises, Vance Elston, Angela’s interrogator and a soldier who fights in the name of Christianity, leads an expedition to hunt out the monster on the planet of St Libra, an expedition which includes the non-ageing Angela. She is a One in Ten; this means she may last for hundreds of years, adding further layers of ambiguity to the truth. The mystery is intensified by the knowledge that St Libra contains no animal life at all. In fact, none of its life could have evolved in the time that it’s existed. So, if it is a terraformed world, who and where are the makers? One by one the members of the team are picked off. These are frightening times on St Libra, not least because the planet itself has turned against its human inhabitants.
Great North Road is a fine novel. At 1100 pages it is complex, intricately woven and deep in characterisation and rich in worldbuilding. The scenes on St Libra are spellbinding. Unfortunately, this also means that by comparison the scenes in Newcastle are not. The police procedural takes up far too many chapters. Interesting as they are, they cannot compete with the rest of the story. This also means that there are sections of the novel in which Angela doesn’t feature and that is a pity. However likeable and interesting Sidney is (and he is), he doesn’t compare enough to Angela and other members of her team. The truths that are unearthed on Angela’s expedition resonate far more powerfully. Nevertheless, the scenes in Newcastle aren’t poor, they’re just up against the extraordinary worldbuilding powers of Peter F Hamilton. Although I would argue that there are far too many chapters beginning with Sid’s family breakfasts.
Hamilton creates fascinating characters. There are layers to them that time unpeels. It is a pity that Hamilton’s female characters spend far too long disrobed amusing the male characters – not least because the women are so interesting. Hamilton does his female characters a great disservice in this and other novels by reducing them to little more than male sexual toys despite their great intelligence and integrity. In a novel of 1100 pages this is not easy to overlook.
I found Great North Road almost impossible to put down. The Newcastle scenes slow the action down a little but they fill the pause with fascinating details and procedural investigation; I wanted to know the truth. The St Libra scenes are full of tropical life and they are compelling. There are mysteries out here in the jungle and not all of them are to do with the knife-fingered monster. Throughout, the narrative takes leaps into history, mostly providing us with the astonishing past of Angela as we learn who she is. The movement between the years works very well. And all the time something picks off the expedition members one by one.
The worldbuilding is magnificent, whether it be St Libra, wintry Newcastle or the orbit of Jupiter. It’s the little details that Hamilton provides, whether of places or people, that enrich the experience of reading his novel. I continue to work my way through his books, constantly grateful to have discovered them. If you haven’t read any Peter F Hamilton before I would recommend you begin with Pandora’s Star, otherwise do plunge in to take a trip down Great North Road.