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Lost Solace (SF) - Karl Drinkwater ****

There was a time when you would be hard pushed to find a science fiction novel with a female main character. As I noted when re-reading Asimov's Foundation, in 189 pages, women appear on just five pages - and they're very much supporting cast. But the majority of new SF novels I've read this year have had female main characters, including The Real Town Murders, Austral and Andy Weir's upcoming Artemis.

That's certainly the case in Karl Drinkwater's engaging Lost Solace. It's really a two hander between military renegade Opal and her ship's AI, Clarissa. There are a few male characters, but they are either non-speaking troops she battles or a major with whom she has a couple of short video conversations. That summary gives an unfair military flavour to the whole thing - in practice, the majority of the action, which is practically non-stop throughout the book, involves Opal trying to survive as she explores a mysterious, apparently abandoned liner in a decaying orbit around a neutron star.

The whole book takes place in real time, which adds to the claustrophobic tension of Opal's adventures, mostly while cooped up in an armoured space suit. It's pretty well impossible not to relate to Opal's character, even though she is apparently enough of a psychopath to be unfazed by killing hundreds of people to achieve her goal. The ship she explores is distinctly weird with some elegantly nasty touches thrown in by Drinkwater - and Clarissa brings in a really interesting AI side to the whole thing.

The only real downside with the setting and the real time action is that Opal has very little interaction with other people, which is usually the central core of a novel. There are also a few oddities - she (and Clarissa) take an awfully long time to realise what's pretty obvious about the abandoned liner, and the ending feels a little rushed and too much like a lead on to the next book, rather than giving much sense of conclusion.

Despite that, it was a book which I read with enthusiasm, wanting to find out what comes next, involving a good deal of atmosphere, particularly on the liner, plus some satisfying David vs Goliath work. Assuming this is the first of a series, I await the next with interest.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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