I’m giving my Peter F. Hamilton addiction some serious attention this year, feeding it the Night’s Dawn trilogy. I have now reached the finale, The Naked God, and I’m currently halfway through this masterly unwinding of a story that has gripped me for the last 3000 pages. It also serves as a reminder to me to write a few words about the second book – The Neutronium Alchemist. Obviously, you’re not going to start a trilogy with the middle book, or the final book for that matter, so do be aware that there may be some minor spoilers below for the first, The Reality Dysfunction. You can read my review of that here.
I’m not going to attempt much of a synopsis for The Neutronium Alchemist. There’s far too much going on in its 1250+ pages. Suffice to say that the plague of the possessed has now spread beyond Lalonde, threatening a number of planets, asteroids and sentient space stations or habitats. What that means is that Hamilton takes us on a voyage across the settled and now uneasy Galaxy, focusing on key individuals as they try to combat, flee from or welcome the onslaught of the reborn souls from the beyond. While the the nature of the attack has become horrifyingly clearer since The Reality Dysfunction, its menace has intensified deeply and this is compounded by the questions that it raises about religion, God, death to a society that, to a great extent, had come to terms with its fate. Desperate times calls for desperate measures and that’s where the neutronium alchemist comes in. Dr Alka Mzu barely featured in The Reality Dysfunction but her liberation from the habitat of Tranquility opens a Pandora’s Box here. She is believed to be in possession of a superweapon, a planet buster. Whoever – or whatever – has that weapon may have the fate of the Galaxy in their hands.
But that’s one thread and there are a whole lot more. If this series has a hero it’s probably the gallant, swashbuckling (in a manner of speaking) Joshua Calvert, Captain of the Lady Macbeth. His role is just as important here, not least for the hearts he breaks (and the seed he sows) along the way but such is the richness and variety of this trilogy Joshua barely features in the first half of The Neutronium Alchemist at all. Likewise, the chief villain of the piece, Quinn Dexter, also has to take his turn for our attention. Instead, we are invited to take our time exploring the conquest of two planets – Norfolk, a Jane Austen-esque colony that produces the finest wine in existence, and New California, a world that is transfigured into a mirage of 20th-century Chicago, thanks to the identity of its main possessor.
And here we have one of the great strengths of the Night’s Dawn trilogy. The baddies may be bad but many of them we get to know very well while others actually aren’t that bad after all. New California’s boss is (or was) none other than Al Capone while the possessor who comes to the gallant aid of Louise and Genevieve Kavanagh on the planet of Norfolk is Fletcher Christian. This could be naff but it really isn’t and that’s partly to do with the amount of time that Hamilton gives us to get to know them. One memorable sequence set on another world under attack is when a group of possessed put themselves at great risk to guide to safety a group of untouched children. There are a lot of souls out there in the beyond. Not all of them are evil and those who fight them have to be aware that all too soon they may be among them.
There are moments of wonder in The Neutronium Alchemist and for me, as in The Reality Dysfunction, many of those are to be found on Tranquility. I love the scenes with Haile the juvenile Kiint alien, jumping for joy in the habitat’s ocean. There is also something very dark at work on the habitat of Valisk, in which the habitat personality and his successor Dariat must endure years of unhappiness and cruelty in their relationship with one another, until they are invaded and there is no alternative but to unite. Thoughts of religion, the existence of God and the destiny of the soul are never far away throughout this novel in which human sentience can already be gathered by habitats, ships, even soldier constructs. It adds a fascinating and often tragic dimension.
The Neutronium Alchemist, as with the other two novels in the trilogy, is full of distinct, wonderful stories, each contributing to the magnificent whole. This is no standalone novel. The three books, if it weren’t for their size, could be in one volume. They certainly deserve the commitment of being read in quick succession. So many characters stand out and so many of the stories are unputdownable, sped along by the novel’s structure which moves from world to spaceship to habitat to asteroid to hell and back.
Peter F. Hamilton writes so (deceptively) lightly. There are strange aliens and space battles, there is hand to hand conflict on the ground, there is horror mixed with the science fiction – ghosts and demons walk these worlds. There is no escape, not even in death, and through it all strides a few key individuals that you care about (how could you not with what they have to endure?) and some that you probably shouldn’t care about but you can’t help it. There are some, though, who are utterly horrifying and cruel and Hamilton doesn’t avoid showing their brutality any more than he hides the heroism of others. With this book, as with so many others of his, Peter F Hamilton achieves the remarkable – a brickbook that knows just how to obsess its reader. This is a novel to be read in big, glorious chunks. And when it’s over you reach for the next.