Neal Asher, The Voyage of the Sable Keech (Tor UK, 2006)

Some six months ago I read and reviewed Neal Asher's Brass Man. I'd heard of neither author nor title previously, and it strikes me now how odd this is. I've decided that Asher's future history is an instant epic, and his endlessly fascinating, alien universe and the dozens of major characters within on par with the imaginings of Lucas or Roddenberry. If the world of the Polity has not yet taken its place in the collective speculative fiction unconsciousness, perhaps it is because, with six published novels in as many years, Asher wastes no time letting the dust settle. He's gonna be big outside of the UK, he just needs to give us a chance to catch up with our reading.

Like his last novel, this book, though engaging enough as a stand-alone, is based on what came before. But unlike Brass Man, which followed Gridlinked and Line of Polity, The Voyage of the Sable Keech is a follow-up to The Skinner, with entirely different characters, villains, and a new (to me) fascinating planet, Spatterjay. Again, Asher prefaces each chapter with an excerpt of some future reference work. In Brass Man these works were varied, but included tidbits of relevant exposition mostly on the history of the Polity, important figures, different sorts of technologies, and more of the sort of info helpful to understanding the universe as Asher presents it.

In The Voyage of the Sable Keech, the info is exclusively in the domain of the flora and fauna of Spatterjay, though perhaps just as relevant to the immediate story. This is a hungry planet, and the environment itself proves a danger, even to our well-equipped protagonists. This is perhaps one of those things that makes Asher's books somewhat unique in the domain of science fiction. It's all so very fantastic. You expect complicated technology, warring alien races, robots, space battles, and the ancient primordial fears that are the domain of fantasy are typically left behind. But Asher's worlds are full of monstrous, mindless beasts on par with the manticores and hydra of old, who cannot simply be "lasered" away.

In the case of Spatterjay, part of this has to do with a particular virus, the Spatterjay virus. This virus effects no less than immortality in its hosts, along with continuous adaptation, meaning that the older an animal (or person) local to Spatterjay gets, the stronger it gets. But even though every living thing on Spatterjay is capable of living forever, they don't. Because everything's constantly eating everything else. And so the "Old Captains," humans who emigrated to Spatterjay some thousand years previously, have had to become just as tough. They sail on old-fashioned wooden ships, on a sea full of monsters, never dying, like the crews of a dozen Flying Dutchmans.

Meanwhile, factor in an army of zombies come to the planet to reenact a famed resurrection ceremony, a villainous insectoid Prador left for dead at the bottom of the sea, only to discover that the Spatterjay virus, left unchecked, is turning him into something entirely new and near unstoppable, and political plots and subplots between AIs, the collective "hive mind" of alien hornets, and a second Prador warship, and you have yourself quite a page turner.

I devoured this 500-pager in a weekend, despite having to work. Asher tells a half-dozen different stories, and you know from the outset that they're going to converge into some explosive climax, but he builds, takes you to the edge of your seat, and keeps you there, for the entire book. If forced to choose, I'd have to say I liked Brass Man a bit better. The characters just grabbed me, particularly the villains. But in the final analysis, The Voyage of the Sable Keech is still one of the better books I've read recently. And if you could go for some escapist fiction, you'd do well to have this on your nightstand. I was ready for a break from real life, and Asher whisked me away without delay. So if that appeals to you, please, book your flight today.

[J.J.S. Boyce]

You can check out Neal Asher's official site for more info on him and his books.