Heart of Granite | James Barclay | 2016, Pb 2017 | Gollancz | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
Max Halloran is a fighter pilot based aboard Heart of Granite, which traverses a future Earth that is devastated by a war that will not end. But Max is no ordinary pilot because the plane he pilots is a drake, or dragon, called Martha and Heart of Granite is a Behometh, a massive beast that houses thousands of men and women, structures and technology within her body. To Martha, Heart of Granite is Mother and to Max and his fellow fighter pilots, as well as their support crew, she is home. The drakes and the behomeths, as well as many other types of creature, are the product of an extraordinary biotechnological feat, the fusion of alien and reptile DNA. Max doesn’t just pilot Martha, he flies within her, sealed within a pouch, their minds and bodies in tune, although not completely. But that day will come. Drake pilots live brief, glamorous, violent lives until the day that they Fall. And there is no doubt. All will Fall.
As far as Max is concerned, he is living the dream. He’s a bit of a maverick but he’s the best pilot there is, rising through the ranks, showing his worth in the never ending war for land that is destroying the planet bit by bit. He knows he only has a few years before the Fall – and he’s seen its impact on his wingman – but he’s determined to live every day like it’s his last. But then Max and his squadron, the Infernos, learn something they shouldn’t. The powers that be have decided to raise the stakes of war and the Infernos will pay the price. It’s up to Max and Martha to stop them and get to the heart of the conspiracy.
Heart of Granite wastes no time in throwing the reader into the middle of war, swooping through the sky in dogfight after dogfight alongside the Infernos, marvelling at the daredevilry of Max, sympathising with the enraged radio calls of the commanders within Heart of Granite as, yet again, Max grasps death by the neck, wrings it and hurls it down to smash on the ground. Max is a young man, aware he’s sacrificed long life (or even a medium-lengthened life) for the thrill of the hunt, and his charismatic personality bellows out from the page. But all too soon events mean that Max must change and it’s while we watch this change that we fall completely for this brave, vulnerable, loyal, frightened hero. The Infernos are such a tight unit, a family, led by Valera (not an easy job), and Valera in particular is the character I felt most strongly for. And then there are the baddies, a couple of whom are especially enjoyable.
The action is fast and furious, the characterisation is loud and glorious, reminding me of a troop in a Second World War movie, but the true reason for the novel’s success is its extraordinary premise and worldbuilding. The war that everyone is obsessed by is not important here. It barely gets a mention beyond the fights to the death that it inspires. What counts here are the drakes, the behomeths and the astonishing connection between the beasts and the men and women who live and fight in them. The descriptions of Max’s journeys deep into the stinking, oozing, fleshy walled, claustrophobic tunnels of the deepest body parts of Heart of Granite are fantastic. I marvelled at James Barclay’s powers of imagination to make this all so real and so utterly horrible while still seeming acceptable. I would have liked to have learned something about the origins of the alien DNA but none of that matters either. Heart of Granite is entirely focused on the here and now of the catastrophe facing Max, the Infernos and the creatures they share their lives and hearts with.
Quite apart from the action, this is also a surprisingly emotional read as Max undergoes his transformation in character. The short lives of the pilots before the Fall is so reminiscent of the brief expectation of life given to pilots during World War One. Their banter hides feelings that run very deep and there is nothing that they won’t do for each other, and that love and care is extended to their drakes.
The second half of the novel is particularly successful as action and heart combine and the book moves away from dogfights and strutting pilots towards its main focus.
I’m no reader of epic fantasy and I steer clear of novels about dragons and so I must admit to some doubt on this score when Heart of Granite arrived. But, for me, the novel most definitely felt like science fiction, and reminded me a little of some of the wonders in the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – the enormous creatures that roam the planet with human passengers inside their bodies. Having said that, I can see that fans of epic fantasy will also enjoy the novel. It crosses genre while giving each of us what we want. Heart of Granite is an extremely clever, ingenious read that is also very moving and a huge amount of fun.