The Voyage of the Sable Keech
by Neal Asher
Review by John Berlyne
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1405001402
Date: 17 February, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Neal Asher's new novel returns his readers to Spatterjay, the inhospitable aquatic world at the outer edge of Polity control and influence that formed the backdrop for his extraordinary novel The Skinner, which has hitherto been my favourite in Asher's ever-growing list of excellent works.
In The Skinner, we learned of the Spatterjay virus which spreads the gift and curse of immortality upon those it infects. We also met the ancient and hardy Spatterjay Captains who sail the planet's oceans, hunting and avoiding the vast array of highly dangerous monsters that thrive there. Also thrown into this mix was a very nasty Prador, a highly intelligent, resourceful and cruel alien. The Voyage of the Sable Keech, retains each of these plot elements and similarly, many of the characters we met in the previous book are out adventuring on the high seas once again.
The central plot element, however, is entirely new. At the conclusion of events in The Skinner, walking dead man Sable Keech found himself resurrected - some circumstantial combination of the Spatterjay virus and nanotechnology caused his cells to regenerate. Now, ten years on, 'reifications' (a.k.a dead folks) have flocked to Spatterjay en mass in the hope of finding their own rebirth. They are led by Taylor Bloc, a man whose character has not been improved with his death. Bloc supervises and finances (by any number of crooked and corrupt methods) the building of an immense ship to sail in Keech's footsteps, and he is careful to have some unpleasant and manipulative tricks up his sleeve to ensure that he remains top dog. Unwillingly co-opted on to the crew of this voyage is Erlin, the woman whose search for Captain Ambel during the events of The Skinner led to her becoming the very thing she sought. Also present is Janer, once indentured to a hive mind, now merely a hireling. He is present to locate and stop another hive mind representative who may be on Spatterjay to collect some "sprine" - the only substance that can kill those infected with the virus. Elsewhere there is our old friend Sniper, the hardy and willful war drone who caused such fireworks during The Skinner, during his battle with the Prador. However, it seems he was not thorough enough last time round, for below the surface of the ocean, another Prador is lurking, one whom the virus has begun to transform. Also under the waves is something else the virus has touched - a vast indigenous monster, in whom a primitive and disturbed intelligence is beginning to awaken.
There are still further plot elements that go towards the action of The Voyage of The Sable Keech, and it really is amazing how Asher manages to keep them all together - but he does, and admirably so. I suspect though, that his plotting is developing a leaning towards the baroque, something that I see going further and further in each new novel that is published. So much seems to be going on that depends on back-story that it could lead to the alienation of new readers not used to this style - The Voyage of the Sable Keech is quite tough going at first, and this from a seasoned Asherite!. With so many apparently disparate plot threads at work, it is not until some way into the narrative that we come to see them linked in motive, as well as in geography. On the other hand, I suppose I could argue that the merits of this approach are equally valid, for Asher's explosive and percussive plotting (by which I mean there are a lot of booms and bangs!) has come to define his voice as a science fiction writer. He is one our loudest and brashest authors, but he is also of the best at controlling and conducting his myriad plot strands - so the result, though always very, very loud, is invariably symphonic, rather than cacophonous. And as his threads weave together, so The Voyage of the Sable Keech gathers momentum and - in what has become another trademark of the author's - it steams pell mell towards it's cymbal crashing conclusion.
And it seems I'm unable to review any Asher novel without a special mention of the monsters! It's something in his work that impresses me time after time, though I fear for the author's stomach lining, for surely only after a large meal of particularly poisonous seafood, could anyone fever-dream up the bestiary that inhabits the depths of Spatterjay's seas. I've mentioned before that Asher comes up with some of the coolest monsters in current SF, but what he adds is an entire eco-system that explains their evolution and their interactions and how their food chain works. It's highly entertaining and brilliantly imagined stuff, and there can be few readers out there who will fail to enjoy this, and pretty much every other aspect of Asher's writing.
So The Voyage of the Sable Keech joins an ever growing and ever more impressive body of work by Neal Asher. His recent nomination for the Philip K. Dick Award (for his novel Cowl) shows that the recognition of his peers is beginning to fall into line with his popularity amongst readers. This is all thoroughly deserved and though I finished this latest novel with the usual sense of satisfaction I've experienced on closing the covers of all Asher's work, for the first time I must admit to an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. Some parts of The Voyage of the Sable Keech, particularly the Sniper sub-plot, feel way too close to the events of The Skinner - the gung ho drone spends the majority of this new novel chasing down the bad boy Prador intruder and flexing his elaborate and impressive weaponry - which is pretty much identical to what he was doing last time round. Intrinsically, I've no problem with this - we do, after all, pick up a sequel to try and repeat the thrill we experienced in the original novel, but it's a fine line between reminiscence and repetition and I felt, in this instance, far too close to the border.
This gripe aside, Asher remains one of my top British SF authors and I wholeheartedly recommend his work to all.