The Skinner by Neil Asher 
List Price: £9.99
Paperback - 480 pages (22 March, 2002)
Macmillan; ISBN: 0333903641
Review by John Berlyne
Check out this book at: Amazon UK

When I reviewed Gridlinked last year (see my review and accompanying interview) I stated that I felt Neal Asher was going to be a force to be reckoned with. The Skinner (which takes place in the same story universe but is very much stand alone) proves that intuitive comment to now be a rock solid reality. This is a stunning piece of work.

Spatterjay is an aquatic planet, the seas of which are seething with indigenous life. Those who settled the planet long ago became hardened by the harsh elements and also by the virus prevalent on the planet that gave them virtual immortality. Adapted now to this environment, these native "Hoopers" are ancient salty sea dogs, sailing the dangerous waters eking out a living.

To this inhospitable place come three travelers - Janer, linked via a hornet to the hive mind he was once indentured to and here to for reasons he has yet to learn; Erlin, a woman returning to this place looking specifically for the ancient sea captain Ambel in the hope of finding her raison d'Ítre; and Sable Keech, a man dead for seven hundred years, but still hungrily pursuing the object of an ancient vendetta he will not let go.

The object of the dead man's dogged pursuit is Spatterjay Hoop, a man guilty of horrendous crimes during the ancient Prador wars and still apparently at large somewhere on this watery hell. Rumors abound that Hoop has now become something truly monstrous - The Skinner - whose head remains locked in a box on Ambel's ship, but whose body roams free on one of the few island wildernesses. Keech must find Hoop and if possible those others of his gang who may still be at large. His task is fraught with danger, not least from the voracious appetites of the planet's wildlife but also from the limitations of his own necrotic state and certainly from the unwelcome and secret visit to Spatterjay of one the Prador's most brutal leaders.

The Skinner, as you might well infer from the above synopsis, is a wonderfully complex piece and it is truly mind-boggling to see how Asher keeps it all in hand - but indeed he does, and brilliantly too! The depth of invention here is just stunning. Incredible science fiction ideas jump off every page and the conception and depiction of the Spatterjay environment is virtually impossible to fault. It is a horribly dangerous place, literally writhing with scary monsters - the result of the harshest evolutionary process imaginable.

Preceding each chapter is an italicized paragraph or two that tells of the dog-eat-dog (or in this case, fish-eat-fish!) cycle of Spatterjay life. It is not a place you want to go your holidays! Asher's skill with characterization that was so apparent in Gridlinked is shown further in this novel. Whether his point-of-view character is human, dead, immortal, mechanical, lobster-like, insectoid or an electronic artificial intelligence, Asher brings them to life with personalities of their very own.

Above all this, The Skinner is a hugely engrossing read and simply a fantastic piece of entertainment that deserves serious consideration for Arthur C. Clarke award in 2003. I strongly recommend it as perhaps the best ten quid you'll spend this year.

© 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu