Cowl by Neal Asher
Tor UK HCVR: ISBN 1405001372 PubDate: 03/01/04
Review by John Berlyne
416 pgs. List price £17.99
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Having very much made his mark with Gridlinked, The Line of Polity and his absolutely brilliant second novel The Skinner, the hard cover release of Neal Asherís new novel Cowl, confirms that this is no flash in the pan author. It is clear now that this is a writer who, having established his own fresh, original and highly energised brand of science fiction, isnít going to fade into obscurity.
In Cowl, Asher does time travel and he does it damn well! taking the reader on a journey that would make one hell of a theme park ride. Some years hence, Polly is a drug addict and prostitute and, not surprisingly is not having a great time of it. Matters arenít helped when she re-encounters Nandru, an acquaintance who happens to be a soldier attached to some secret military operation. Nandru has acquired through dubious means some tech that doesnít belong to him and decides to use Polly as a go between in the negotiations for its return. Those who want this technology back however are not much for talking and Polly finds herself in the centre of a shoot out which, in wonderfully recognizable Asher style, not many people survive. In the melee, Polly grabs hold of the disputed technology and unconsciously slips it on to her wrist and this is where we strap ourselves in for the ride.
In the far, far future our solar system is dominated by an evolved human race known as The Heliothane, who are embroiled in a bitter war with another evolved human race called The Umbrathane. Though this conflict has lasted many decades, it is no longer restricted to linear time. The eponymous Cowl, a very shady, VERY bad Umbrathane (shades of Simmonsí Shrike?) and has escaped into the past with the intention of screwing with time and thus negating the very existence of The Heliothane. One the toys he plays with in pursuing this goal is the Torbeast, an immense and terrifically nasty monster that travels through time as if it were an alligator in the sewers. Still with me? Good, because itís worth it!
Nandruís stolen tech is a scale from this vast monster and poor Polly now wears this tor which has genetically melded itself to her arm. The scale pulls our heroine into the past and we follow her adventures through the ages, back through World War II, through Medieval courts and Roman barracks to times where her problems are not so much made up of whatever she can find to eat, but on how she can avoid being eaten. These are terrifying and intensely exciting moments for the reader, a mixture at which Asher excels. Concurrent to Pollyís story is that of Tack, one of the U-Gov agents sent to track Nandru down. Tack finds himself pulled into the time stream on Pollyís tail and thus begins an adventure of his own. Tack learns sooner than Polly the facts behind their temporal jumping as he is picked up downstream by a Heliothane traveller who roughly educates him in the ways of time travel. Asher portrays a fascinating through line for Tack Ė the status of this character rises and falls throughout the novel and at the end he is truly redeemed.
Cowl is a complex story and it is a testament to this extraordinarily energized writer that he has not been seduced into giving us a massive tome filled with back story. Instead, like Asherís previous novels, the pace of the story accelerates with each turn of the page. Cowl is a fast moving, ultra-violent, action-packed avalanche of brash and break-neck science fiction. Very highly recommended.