Reviewers often have a good laugh at the nonsense publishers put into book blurbs. As a publisher myself, I see the issue from both sides, so I know why blurbs are what they are. Even so, I still often roll my eyes and how the description in a blurb can often bear little resemblance to the actual book. On the back of Gareth L Powell’s Descendant Machine, the good folks at Titan describe it as: “a gripping, fast-paced and brilliantly imagined science fiction thrill ride.” Reader, I could not have put it better myself.
Descendant Machine is a stand-alone space opera novel. It is set in the same world as Stars & Bones but, aside from the background of that world, the two books are unconnected. You don’t need to have read the earlier book.
As with much space opera, this is a book about Big Dumb Objects. There are at least three. To start with there is the Confluence fleet, a collection of space arks which is ferrying the remains of humanity on a generations-long cruise through the galaxy so that Earth can recover from the depredations of those same humans (or at least their ancestors). Most of the characters in the book are from the Confluence, and more specifically from Vanguard, which is Powell’s version of The Culture’s Contact division (and some of them are probably Special Circumstances).
BDO two is the Gunmetal Ghost, a kilometers-long starship from the distant past, which our heroes must seek out in order to rescue an alien holy man, the Abelisk, from a faction amongst his people who want to do something very stupid and don’t want him to find out. Being their culture’s most respected religious leader, he might be able to stop them.
And what stupid thing do they want to do? Why, activate BDO three, the so-called Great Mechanism, which sounds suspiciously like a stargate surrounding a wormhole. The aliens, four-armed vaguely feline people called the Jzat, have got it into their collective heads that this thing was built by their ancestors and by opening it they can reclaim their glorious past. The campaign to do so is being led by an army general turned populist politician.
So yes, the subtext of the book is a parable about the foolishness of populations being led astray by the nationalist ravings of far-right politicians. I think we can all guess what Powell is talking about here.
We also all know what happens when you open a mysterious door that the Games Master has put there, all tempting-looking, in the hope that you will be daft enough to open it. Some things, readers, man was never meant to know.
However, as far as Nicola Mafalda and her ship, Frontier Chic, are concerned, the whole book is about getting to the Gunmetal Ghost, finding the Abelisk, and keeping him safe from General Aulco’s goons.
Meanwhile there is a separate thread in which a young human mathematical genius called Orlando Walden is recruited by the Jzat to solve the mysteries of the Great Mechanism so that they can re-start it. The kid starts off deeply annoying, but he does have a character arc. We swap every so often to his viewpoint so that Powell can remind us how short of time our heroes are, and how imminent the galactic apocalypse has become.
It all rips along at a tremendous pace. I read the book in about a day, finding it very hard to put down. Powell has got really good at pacing, about just when to drop one viewpoint and leave the reader hanging, and ramping up the tension as the book approaches its conclusion. There are some excellent plot twists as well. Like I said, it does exactly what it says on the tin.
The characters are fun too. Erudite-Harf, the Jazt scientist who is heading up the project to re-start the Great Mechanism is highly amusing. One of the Gunmetal Ghost’s avatars reminds me a lot of Stephen Fry as Fiddler’s Green in the Sandman TV series.
This book is effectively a stand-alone, so if you’ve not read any Gareth Powell before, this would be a very good place to start.
Title: Descendant Machine
By: Gareth L Powell
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