Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Hive Construct - Alexander Maskill

The Hive Construct is Alexander Maskill’s debut novel. It’s a sci-fi techno-thriller, set in a future version of Cairo. It’s got a lot to recommend it – some interesting concepts, and a compelling story – though there are some things I’d like to see explored further.

The first of these is New Cairo. Maskill does a great job of evoking a living city with relatively broad strokes. There’s a strong sense of society here, and a less strong one of place. The social fabric of New Cairo is drawn with care – we’re taken through the various neighbourhoods with our protagonists. We’re shown the privations of one group, the rising economic and social standing of another, and the affluence of the high-end districts. These are mirrored, at least in part, in the characters that inhabit them. But what we’re seeing here is a city divided by class, divided by a need to work, to acquire food, a desire to live a normal life. This is all brought into focus by one of the central groups in the text, which, amongst other things, is struggling to get a fair economic deal for members. As the heat simmers away in the background, Maskill brings these socio-economic divisions to a head.

 It’s a struggle largely seen in dialogue, though the descriptions of the poorer areas of New Cairo are appropriately heart-wrenching. The city, sat in a broken crater, with an artificial sun overhead, fuelled by solar panels, ringed by elevator stations – the city starts to feel alive. I would have been delighted to hear more about this. To have seen more of the politics of the city, not tied to the immediate plot. To have looked in more depth at the neighbourhoods, rather than a passing line. To have delved into the formation of certain social action groups that feature through the text, and seen their demands with a smidge more nuance.
Having said that, this New Cairo is a city of dust, and sand. A city of desire, and of drive. A city of need, and wealth. It’s a study in contrasts, and Maskill has created and manipulated those contrasts to make the location feel real. It would have been a pleasure to spend more time getting into the guts of the city, but what’s there is presented well.

The same sparing ethos is in play for the characters. There are multiple viewpoints at play here. A city politician, desperate to present his point of view (and perhaps to profit thereby) was a personal favourite. There’s also an ex-police mission planner, and an accused murderer turned cyber-expert. And a whole host of supporting cast. From the central triad, it was possible to get a solid sense of character through the narrative. Again, Maskill uses his pen sparingly, and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions. Of the three, it is the  ex-policewoman who receives the most non-plot time, or it feels that way – we learn a little about her husband, rather more about her desire to protect her children. Her moral qualms as she’s dragged deeper into a plot which rewards moral failure are a delight. The councillor, by contrast, speaks a great deal, but more of that is exposition. He feels half-alive – there’s enough here to make him interesting to read, but not quite enough to make him come off the page. The cyber-warrior, by contrast, is swathed in a bubble of expository information – whilst she has goals of her own, there’s not a sense of emotional depth. On the other hand, she carries a great deal of the plot comfortably, and manages some highly compelling action scenes – so peaks and troughs.

The plot…well, as you may gather from the above, this is an action movie of a book. There’s a great deal of running about. There’s gunfire, and hand to hand combat. There’s a threat that could end life on earth as we know it. And our grimy anti-heroes are the only ones available who might stop it. And it works, it really does. The action is fast-paced and compelling. The dialogue is snappy, believable, and easy to read. The text manages to convey the sense of high stakes, and the prose makes you believe in them, and keep turning pages.

Overall then, this is a good action novel. It has some decent characters, in a well realised, if sparse, setting, in service to a plot which roars like a jet engine. It’s fast-paced, arse-kicking fun, and thoroughly enjoyable for it.

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