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Debatable Space
Philip Palmer
Orbit paperback £10

review by Alasdair Stuart

Flanagan has a plan. It involves kidnapping Lena, the Cheo's daughter and holding her to ransom. What Flanagan doesn't bank on is how capable and how fierce Lena is, what he'll have to do to hold on to her, and the effect it will have on his crew, even before the Cheo gets to them. What Lena doesn't count on is how oddly pleasing she's beginning to find Flanagan's company...

Philip Palmer's debut novel is quietly rather astonishing. It achieves this in two ways, firstly through the sheer offhand, casual spectacle of the action. A star is blown up in the first 25 pages, a naval engagement around a black hole within the first hundred. This is science fiction of the sort Iain M. Banks does, but grounded and presented in a pragmatic manner that somehow gives it even more impact.

Where the novel really shines though, is in the language and the text. Told in a series of short first-person narratives, Palmer gives us different perspectives on the same event, frequently giving the reader an insight into one character that the others lack. It also neatly expands the world and makes the characters themselves all the more ambiguous. For example, Lena goes from damsel in distress, killing a pirate who attempts to capture her, to the murderer of a man with a wife, a history, dreams. It's a very simple technique but one that works extremely well.

The text itself though, is used to tell the story in a remarkably smart way. Arcs of words describe the trajectories of spaceships, important quotes sit alone on the page and an antimatter bomb detonates, in vast, vertical block capitals across three pages. The effect is similar to the text animation methods used on some opening credit sequences and it gives the book a visual dimension and a real sense of speed, of energy.

Massively ambitious, frequently very funny, and as frequently brutal, this is an astonishing first novel from a major new author. It's a relentless narrative that challenges the reader to keep up and more than rewards those that do. Excellent.
Debatable Space

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