by Paul McAuley
Cover Artist: Sparth
Review by Benjamin Wald
Pyr Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781616142513
Date: 18 January 2011 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Cowboy Angels combines a fast paced spy-thriller plot with a fascinating science fiction setting. McAuley is an excellent author, and the book was consistently engaging. However, the spy thriller plot somewhat overpowers the science fictional ideas, and left some of the details of the setting under-explored.
McAuley's new novel starts from a fascinating premise. In the 1970s America developed the ability to travel to alternate universes, allowing access to a variety of alternate America's, known as sheaves. The America that developed the Turing gates, calling itself "the real" discovered Americas that had been devastated by nuclear war, or had fallen into the grip of fascism or communism. The real proceeded to aid in restoring these devastated and conquered Americas to prominence, rebuilding and supplying weapons and troops to resistance movements in the alternate Americas. This policy of intervention and interference ended with the election of Jimmy Carter, who proceeded to end the military involvements and wrap up the spy services of "the company", an analog of the CIA.
The plot revolves around retired company operative Stone, who is called out of retirement to track down an old partner, Tom Waverly, who has gone rogue. Tom is systematically murdering the alternate world doppelgangers of a mathematician involved in a secret government research program. He is accompanied by Tom's estranged daughter, who seeks to discover the reason for her father's cross-dimensional murder spree. Tom, it turns out, has discovered a conspiracy at the highest levels of the company, involving treason, nuclear weapons, and advanced technology of possibly alien origin. All of this makes for a gripping, if rather conventional, spy story. There is plenty of action, races against time, double crosses, and all the other staples of the genre to keep the plot moving.
I enjoyed the main story, but what drew me to the book originally was the fascinating premise. It provides an interesting mirror with which to view American imperialism and manifest destiny. However, while there was some exploration of these ideas, I felt that the potential of the setting was somewhat neglected due to the breakneck pace of the plot. I never got a clear sense of what it was like to live in a world that had made contact with alternate universes, or of what it might be like to live in a world that had been freed and then politically dominated by an America from another timeline. The characters are so fixed on their own emergencies that there is little time for seeing the day to day life of any of the various Americas. This felt to me like a missed opportunity.
Anyone who enjoys spy thrillers and science fiction will not want to miss this one. The writing is excellent, and the high speed plot never lags or disappoints. Still, I can't help but feel that the science fictional elements in this novel were given less space than they deserve in order to maintain the narrative drive of the plot.