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Galllowglass (SF) - S. J. Morden ****

All fiction has to take liberties with the realities of space travel, but some handle it better than others, and S. J. Morden has gone further than anyone else I can remember in pinning down the detail to make this space-based thriller feel particularly gritty and realistic. The storyline has two key themes: the runaway and asteroid mining. The central character Jaap (Jack) Van der Veerden is an ultra-privileged young man who is determined to escape the clutches of his controlling parents, who through pretty much limitless expenditure intend to live forever, meaning he can apparently never escape their clutches and financial control.

He gets away with the SF equivalent of running away to join the circus - running away to space. Luckily, although he has no practical experience, he does have the theoretical knowledge to be an astrogator and gets a position on a dodgy expedition to retrieve a mineral-rich asteroid. I find it impossible to believe that Morden wasn't inspired by the Robert Heinlein's juvenile classic Starman Jones, where the central character, Max Jones, runs away  to space to escape his difficult family and, despite not being qualified, ends up as an astrogator who saves the day. Here, despite only having the theory, Jack is also the one to mean the difference between life and death.

Morden manages an excellent balance between the nitty-gritty detail of staying alive in the harsh conditions of space, while trying to get a partly rubble asteroid moving, with enjoyable tension and action. Usually, there's a danger that a book that goes into some of the technical detail of space travel will lack narrative drive, but this remains a real page turner. And there's a huge third act twist that makes Jack's life even more complicated and brings in a massive problem that may be insuperable.

All this is very well done, and deserves five stars, but there was a third element that was grafted on, which hadn't got the opportunity to work with the plot and just feels very artificially placed. The storyline is set against an Earth in 2069 facing the drastic impact of uncontrolled climate change. That in itself is not a problem, although it plays hardly any role in the plot, other than a reason for some irrational behaviour by one character. But every chapter begins with a lengthy climate change quote, initially from deniers then giving the scientific viewpoint. It feels as if the author cares about climate change and shoehorned it into a story that had very little to do with it. I care about climate change too - but I wouldn't bring it into a piece I was writing about quantum physics, say.

In the end, this is a minor irritation, but one that is sustained throughout the book by the chapter openers. However, that didn't stop me really enjoying the actual storyline and the expertise with which Morden handles it - noticeably better than his already promising previous novel One Way. I'll certainly be back for more of his writing.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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