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Book Review: The Departure (Owner Trilogy Book One) by Neil Asher

The_DepartureWhen this first book of a new sci-fi trilogy was released in 2011 I must confess I was rather worried. I utterly adore his previous Polity series of novels and constantly lust for more. It’s a very selfish and reader-centric concern but was high in my mind when I finally downloaded it on Kindle (it’s a new series, so I don’t have to get all the matching hardbacks…)

The Owner trilogy (of which The Departure is book one) gives us an awful dystopian Earth where the bureaucracy has gone wild with horrific results. There’s a lot of info dumping about the political setup, which came across as slightly defensive – as if a future where citizens get designated ‘Zero Assets’ (a bit like reading the Daily Mail) and herded into zones where they can be exterminated while the rich and powerful hoard resources and shove the best anti-ageing drugs in themselves, living the high life at the expense of others is in any way implausible. It really doesn’t feel unlikely either, and the horror of that future is well realised in the actions and reactions of the main character, Saul.

I can’t tell you much about him without giving to much away, but he’s a tough character to like. Initially he’s quite sympathetic if incredibly ruthless in resisting the global government. Cue tonnes of murder, shoot-outs, violence and subversion of computer systems. As his story becomes clearer he’s in the interesting condition of having a load of experimental hardware shoved in his head and he struggles to integrate that new awareness and existence while retaining his humanity. He doesn’t do terribly well at that.

The stakes escalate very well and the action is relentless and exciting. I don’t care for many of the other characters in the book; most of them are some species of bad guy (although they’ve survived in a climate where being a ruthless bastard is the only way to survive, so they’re a bit ambiguous) but I really disliked his female companion who seemed almost offensively weak to me (but again has been through a number of brutal wringers). The main story is offset by an insurgency underway on the tiny human Mars base, cut off from resources and run by the dangerous idiocy of the regime’s political officer. Although I did get into the main Saul storyline I found the Martian struggle more engaging straight away.

It’s good sci-fi and I still feel that my reservations about the book stem from this not being the Polity world (which is just me being a dick). The politics and social setup are provocative and satirical, the characters actions are radical and violent. It’s slightly clumsy in how it gets going, but that was much the same in Gridlinked (the first of the Polity books – I had to force a friend to get through that one to reach the gold on the other side) and I suspect this is going to be much the same: Zero Point (book 2) will be awesome. The main character theme also seems to be the opposite of that in Gridlinked – where Cormack is learning to disengage with the virtual world, Saul is learning how to bend it to his will. Read it, it’s part of the astonishing Brit sci-fi new wave.

Neal Asher

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