The Mirrored Heavens by David J Williams
Published by Bantam Spectra, May 2008
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
In recent years it’s been good to see publishers push out new talent in the SF field. This book continues that trend by being a hyperactive debut novel. If your tastes in SF run to a nicely extrapolated projected future and lots of espionage activity, saving the world and beyond, this debut might be the book for you.
Much of its initial premise seems to be set up in the first few pages. The book begins in the year 2110. In this scenario, the US exists in competition with the Eurasian Coalition and its allies (that’s pretty much China and Russia to you and me.) Europe, India and Oceania are cautiously neutral. A second Cold War has existed for over 50 years as a consequence of this treaty, expanding to the Moon, where a frosty coexistence occurs between the US and its rivals.
Fans of Niven/Pournelle’s CoDominium series should now be interested. The story then steps up a gear with a terrorist act: the world’s biggest joint project, a nearly-completed space elevator (called logically, the Phoenix Elevator) is destroyed, apparently by South American separatists who collectively call themselves Autumn Rain, seemingly as a message to highlight the increasingly high status of the Brazilian splinter group. Of course, this is not as simple as it first appears. It becomes clear through the novel that the destruction of the Elevator was simply the precursor to other events: in fact, its removal appears to be a coincidental convenience that covers up more covert activities.
Into this we now have introduced our main characters. Our principal hero and heroine are Claire Haskell and Jason Marlowe, working as a duo team – a razor (cyber-intelligence conduit) and a mech (armed assassin-type, to get the work done, with an armoured suit that reminded me of Heinlein/Haldeman.) They are assigned to investigate the cause of, and reasons for, the Elevator’s destruction and (because the two seem connected) instigate the removal of Autumn Rain. As the next terrorist action could be anywhere in the Earth-Moon system, this eventually leads to their deployment to the Moon and beyond.
Of course, as you might expect, their story is not the full picture. At the same time, an alternative story-strand involves an agent called The Operative (later found to be called Carson) who is running a mission deep undercover. Eventually, this brings him into conflict with Haskell and Marlowe.
Another element in this complex world of cross and double cross is that there are also renegades on the run. Spencer is a mercenary agent who finds himself flushed from cover yet helping a defector, Linehan, escape capture with vital information about Autumn Rain.
All of these characters (and others!) weave in and out from each other as they try to discover the secret of Autumn Rain. And as you might expect, the ending is not what you think it might be.
The book is, unusually, written in the present tense. The chapters are fairly short and move from character (or characters) to character. This can make the book difficult to follow at times. It also makes the dialogue a little wearying in places. Many of the characters talk tersely. In clipped sentences. With each sentence made to count. And each response equally curt. But filled with meaning. (Which after 400 or so pages can be hard work.)
On the negative side, what happens in places is that the book overstretches itself. This can happen with a relatively new writer, but as you might perhaps expect in an espionage novel with an emphasis on the plot, the characterisation is a little clichéd, but bearable. At times, the weaknesses of a fairly new writer means this made the characters a tad interchangeable, with few disparities to differentiate between the characters. This might be deliberate - in a world of subversive espionage, who would survive with characteristics that makes them stand out? - but it did mean that, at times, I had to check my characters.
It is an ambitious novel, but ultimately juggling so many complex revelations leads to major info dumping and extended exposition in order to bring readers up to speed (should they have lost their way a little along the way.) When the characters do meet, about two-thirds of the way in, there is a major dumping of revelations.
Consequently the book is pretty well paced but, unlike the cover may lead you to expect, there is an emphasis on more talk than action, though the action pieces, when they happen, are well done. It would be wrong for you to read this expecting it to be all action, James Bond style: as with a lot of real espionage, I understand, the reality is sometimes quite mundane, involving a lot of running from place to place, though there are some nice set pieces on a piggy-backed rocket, on a rail train and in a Brazilian city, for example. The pace reminded me a little of Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End or perhaps David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake, though its most similar recent novel to me, in style and complexity, was Richard Morgan’s Thirteen/Black Man.
In summary, this is a fairly impressive first novel, though not perfect. It is a book that can be both entertaining and confounding. Nevertheless, David’s complex world is well realised, and chillily presented. The hi-tech, near-future thriller setting of the novel, in a future Cold War, is very well done, and I was pleased to see, at the back, a future timeline realistically extrapolated from our present.
If you want to see more of this, David’s excellent website, http://www.autumnrain2110.com/index.php?action=geopolitical fills in the background.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, June/July 2008
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