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On
Adam Roberts
Gollancz paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

On takes a simple idea and builds it into a richly detailed setting: the world is a wall, with ledges on which life maintains a precarious grip, always close to the edge and a fall that almost inevitably leads to death. The protagonist, Tighe, is fascinated by this obvious fact and by the realisation that the other people in his village seem able to ignore it. His questioning causes conflict with his grandfather, the village priest, particularly when Tighe becomes infatuated with the daughter of a heretic. As the son of the Prince of the village, he has few duties and is largely free to wander, allowing the author to build up a detailed description of his surroundings. His family is by no means rich despite their status and their insulation from poverty disappears when one of their goats goes over the edge. Tighe's home life is difficult enough with an abusive mother but the added burden of debt in hard times leads towards a disintegration of the family. The nature of abuse within families and across generations is well handled and the whole environment of Tighe's upbringing is so thoroughly believable that existence on a worldwall becomes almost second nature.
   Tighe's misery seems set to continue without end but eventually he escapes, more by accident than intent, and is conscripted to become a kite rider in the army of an empire far from his birth place. Again, Roberts builds up a convincing account as Tighe finds comradeship amongst a corps of children who leap out from the wall and fly in the draughts. Inevitably the army goes to war. The chaos and confusion are wrenching, as is Tighe's almost unhinged response. More dark and horrid adventures ensue; revealing much of the underpinnings of this worldwall but progress in the storyline itself gradually fades away. Tighe cannot comprehend the advanced technology that he encounters, making the task of revelation difficult for both writer and reader. (An appendix provides further technical detail direct to the reader. This is complex enough to allow the reader to understand Tighe's confusion but could equally be seen as grandstanding by the author.)
   The ideas in On are more complete - and more involving - than Adam Roberts' first book. The novel is a form of planetary romance as Tighe is dragged across the face of the worldwall. However the protagonist is a passive, reactive character; when he tries to take control of events his attempts fail, reminiscent of the abiding lack of hope in the novels of Anne Gay. The conclusion rounds off the novel satisfactorily but not very satisfyingly. Despite this taste of darkness, On is filled with masterfully clear description of the world and its people.
On by Adam Roberts
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