Saturday, 26 June 2010

Review: Swiftly by Adam Roberts


Has anyone ever had this happen to them: You hear about this book, read what its about, and then for a good year or so want nothing more than to tear into it, particularly if its set in 19th century Britain and involves a war between Britain and France with some elements of fantasy? And then, you read said book and then become utterly dissapointed by the end and the overall content of the bloody thing? Well, I've had that happen several times, such as Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events (unfortunate in that the ending SUCKED BALLS!), the final Harry Potter book, and...well, many of the other thousands of books I've read. Now this is down to either two things, either I have ridiculously high standards or there are no good authors out there who's names aren't Bernard Cornwell, Tim Stretton and Stan Nichols. But for the majority of this book by Mr Adam Roberts there seemed to be a lot missing, both from the plot and the universe created inside.

Ok before I go I feel I must say a bit about the actual setting first. Basically, the novel is set in pre-Victorian England, where the British Empire has become technologically advanced thanks to the enslavement of the people from Jonathan Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels, i.e. the Lilliputians, who are exactly 12 times smaller than human beings and three times as annoying. These people are used to construct advanced devices such as little flying-machines, intricate fabrics and other brilliant aspects of technology impossible by then-human standards. However, there is very little emphasis of this technology in the book, and you'd think there'd be more of it being a science-fiction novel during the single most amazing century in British history, such as man-sized aircraft, airships, clockwork cars, some kind of repeating rifle or machine gun, but in fact technology plays a very small part of the actual story, other than on a kind of mission that doesn't really go anywhere. In fact, the only real technology mentioned is a gigantic cannon at York, some kind of mystical spaceship and...well, thats basically it. You'd think for a Victorian-science fiction there'd be greater emphasis on steam-powered machinery, maybe some kind of gigantic steam-powered tank or mecha, but no such luck I'm afraid, so if a technologically-focused book is what you're after I'd say look somewhere else chappie. Robert's portrayal of Victorians, whilst accurate and enjoyable, sadly fails to make up for this.

Not only that, but there's huge holes missing from the plot, enough to severely confuse the reader similar to a cat playing with a pet-toy, only to lose sight of it and upon finding it again feel extremely depressed and self-concious. This sort of thing happens particularly towards the end of the final chapter, but you'll have to read this for yourself, lazy person. However, even without that, there's still many gaps in the storyline, especially for one of the main characters, Eleanor Burton. For example, she has something of a meeting with this German Count, a few days before her wedding, but after paying his bail after becoming arrested, nothing is heard from him again. And more to the point, how did she come to be picked up by Colonel Larroche on a journey that should have played a greater role, but instead had a very small spart in the plot of the novel.

In spite of its faults, Swiftly nevertheless remains a decent read, as well as being highly influential and invokves some deep thinking, but messes itself around too much in the Titanic-sinking holes in the plot and the lack of creativity in the universe created by Mr Roberts. Not only that, but its the only book I've read so far that's made sex boring! You have to give the author credit for satire but at the same time there's satire enough throughout the rest of the novel without the concealed messages of 'sex is bad'.

In short, the main features of the book are a French invasion of England, a plague, a ridiculously long carriage ride that has bugger-all affect on the rest of the storyline and some quite vivid detail into how someone shat themselves. I enjoyed reading it but found that Swiftly ultimately fails as a science fiction, on the grounds that there should be more science and less fiction. I know most readers prefer a balance between those two but they have to support each other, which is another sorely lacking element of this well-written novel.

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