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Ares Express
Ian McDonald
Earthlight paperback £7.99

review by Porl Broome

Oh dear, two of my least favourite literary subject matters: the Red Planet, and - gulp - trains. Still, I was careful to keep my stones un-cast until I'd at least given this novel a fair crack of the whip. The story follows the adventures of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th, daughter of the engine driver of Catherine of Tharsis (one of the planet's most noble engines). While she dreams of following in her father's footsteps, he is having none of this and has arranged that she be married into another noble family. On her wedding day, Sweetness decides that no way is she allowing anyone to chain her to a kitchen sink for the rest of her life, so she ups-sticks and runs away with a strange boy with a cataract who can see dead people. From here on in she is double-crossed, her 'guardian angel' is captured in a mirror and stolen from her, she's left for dead in the desert and comes across all manner of unlikely objects and people. There's also a rising telepathic evangelist who is hell-bent on ruling the Universe, and flies around in a wooden cathedral. And Sweetness' Grandma, who can make wishes come true by stitching words into her skin. Then you have to find out about all eleven of the dimensions, and their harmonies.
   Sorry if my synopsis flits around a little, and doesn't seem to make much sense, but, well, neither does the book. McDonald's prose is incredibly eloquent, and he's obviously a very clever and imaginative man - very much in the Greg Bear vein - but I just feel that perhaps he's trying a little too hard. It seems as though he isn't sure if he's writing a sci-fi adventure romp, or some kind of genre-defying literary piece. Also, too many things happen without explanation, or even necessity, on a seemingly random basis - making it very hard for the reader to maintain enough interest to turn the page.
   There are some very interesting concepts contained with the story, especially on a spiritual level - for example, Precious' Uncle the railway signal (it transpires that while working on the signal, he was electrocuted and his spirit was 'fused' to the metal post). Also, the 'satellites-as-angels' idea works fairly well. A little more focus and some serious editing would have made a big difference. Unfortunately, the thick language, tongue-twister names, trains, and ridiculously unpredictable plot line make Ares Express a very taxing read, which has very little in the way of payback for the reader. Although I picked up on enough positive things in McDonald's writing to at least contemplate giving him another go some time, the best thing about this particular book, is that it very nearly has a good title. If only the printers had got the 'e' and the 's' the other way around.
Ares Express by Ian McDoanld
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