Great North Road by Peter F. Hamilton – review

By on June 29, 2014

great north road

Any time I start reading a Peter F. Hamilton novel, I go in with the understanding that I will be committing a significant amount of time and a not inconsiderable chunk of brain power to the endeavor.  I’ve never read one of his books yet that wasn’t the size of a patio paving stone.  It might as well be treated like my best friend in the world, because I’ll be taking it everywhere with me and probably devoting more time to reading than may be strictly healthy.  The thing is, I’m a fast reader, so I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who reads more slowly than  I do.

This is not to say that a Peter F. Hamilton novel isn’t well worth the effort to read it. I wouldn’t stick with them if I didn’t enjoy them. I just don’t think it’s fair to review a book without also giving some mention to the physical heft of the book itself.  Had I chosen to read this on my Nook instead, the time table would not have been accelerated by any means.  It just would have been substantially lighter than my trade paperback reading copy.

So now that that’s out of the way: Great North Road takes place in 2143, which may seem like it’s a terribly long ways away in terms of human lifespan, but in the larger scheme of time, it isn’t.  Human beings have made enormous strides in terms of space travel.  Instantaneous interstellar travel has been made possible by the use of specialized gates.  These gates are controlled almost exclusively by North Interstellar.

The company is run by the North family.  The family itself is made up of clones of Kane North.  While the clones all share certain characteristics, the technology itself isn’t perfect.  Genetic irregularities have sprung up, getting worse with each successive generation of clones.  By the time the Norths reached the third clone generation, they’ve been forbidden by the family to try to reproduce.

The worlds humans occupy are run on bioil, a synthetic fuel created by enormous algae paddies.  Not surprisingly, the North companies play an enormous role in the bioil industry, too.  The largest bioil “farm” is a planet called St. Libra, which, when it was discovered, had no animals of any kind on it, just plants.  The North Company promptly started setting up to begin massive bioil production.

Sid Hurst is a detective in Newcastle, the city around the gate to St. Libra.  He’s on the job when a corpse is pulled from the river. That corpse turns out to be one of the North clones.  The body has odd wounds that are not quite explained by ordinary means.  Sid finds himself in a high-stakes game of politics, puzzle-solving, and investigation as he tries to uncover which North was murdered and why.

Meanwhile, with the possibility raised that this murder could have been committed by an alien creature, a young woman named Angela Tramelo is released from prison.  She was convicted of killing one of the Norths and his entire household 22 years earlier. Suddenly, this latest murder suggests that she really may have been as innocent as she swears she is.  Tramelo isn’t released for further questioning, however; she’s being hauled on an expedition to St. Libra in search of the alien monster she swears attacked on St. Libra all those years ago.

The two stories don’t just intersect, they interconnect.  There are a lot of details and a lot of characters to keep sorted, but the timeline at the front definitely helps. For anyone who may be tempted to skip it and start reading the novel proper, my advice  is don’t. You’ll want to keep referring to that timeline, especially as more about the Norths and their company are revealed.

Even though this book is long, the plot clips along at a rate that keeps the reader interested and asking “what’s next?” It’s frustrating to switch between storylines every chapter or so when you’ve gotten really absorbed in what’s happened. There is, of course, the suspense of the murder mystery plot, but there’s also the suspense of the expedition plot. Both of them build, and it gets harder to resist the temptation to just skip ahead to the next section of book that deals with the plotline you’re most absorbed in at the moment.

As with any Hamilton book I’ve read thus far, you’ve also got to be prepared to deal with discussions of God and His place within human consciousness and the human experience.  Religion is always a factor in Hamilton’s books, and while he doesn’t get preachy about it, the slant gets more obvious the deeper you are into the book. Hamilton never smacks you upside the head with it like, say, Dean Koontz does (and with Koontz it’s gotten to a point where it has become more distraction than plot device or personal statement). Certainly, there are some of the characters who will thump the reader, gladly, by thumping every character who comes into their orbit with their beliefs, but I think nearly everyone has met someone like that over the course of their lives. The nice thing about Hamilton is that only a few of his characters are like that, rather than the majority of them, and he always takes the time to make sure that the readers know that even the True Believer isn’t just some two-dimensional bible thumper.  There is always something more to them.

Great North Road is harder science fiction than I usually read. There are elements of military sci-fi all over it.  Even though military sci-fi isn’t usually a subgenre that I typically enjoy, I make exceptions for Peter F. Hamilton.  When he’s writing about a military operation, I never feel as if I’m being bogged down by incessant details and constant references to hierarchy.  Instead, it’s much easier for me to see how this information is relevant to the story.  It’s a vital part of how the book moves forward. Without this military operation in place, there would be so many questions left unanswered.

Great North Road took me a long time to read. I never found it boring or had the sense that I was just slogging my way through an endless mass of words.  I wanted to know more about the characters and what was going to happen to them.  There are many characters in the story who are peripheral characters, and while they may be loosely sketched in to give context, there’s never a sense that the characters aren’t complete - they just aren’t major players in this story.

This book is one that I would certainly give to friends who like hard sci-fi or the ones who like murder mysteries. I’d just make sure that they were comfortable lugging around a book that large before I did.

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