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Artifact Space (SF) - Miles Cameron *****

This is a cracking (and, frankly, wrist-cracking at 568 pages) piece of space opera. That's a term that is sometimes used as a put-down to suggest pulp rubbish, but I use it affectionately. It's not trying to be great literature, but it's a great read, which is all I want from a book. 

The author mentions Alistair Reynolds as an inspiration - and it's certainly true that there's something of Reynolds' (or Banks') sweeping imagination of a space-based civilisation. But for me, there's more here of a modern equivalent of Robert Heinlein at his best. Not the soppy stuff he produced towards the end of his career, but the period that peaked with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. In fact, the basic storyline has a distinct resemblance to that of Heinlein's Starman Jones. In that 1950s novel, the main character is from a spacegoing family who manages to get a place on a ship despite not having the qualifications, and with his skill manages in the end to save the whole ship. Here, our central character, Marca Nbaro, has a similar trajectory, though both the ship Athens (which is Star Trek-like in its scale and ethos, but in the form of a massive military-supported interstellar trader rather than an exploratory ship) and the central character is much more twenty-first century science fiction.

I liked the way that Miles Cameron doesn't gloss over the grunt work of getting on in an environment like this - Nbaro spends a long time working on training in different spheres - and despite the book feeling a little too long, there is plenty of action to keep the reader engaged. The characters are reasonably well drawn, though they rarely surprise you - the good guys are always obviously good guys, and similarly with the villains. Although there is also a touch of Starship Troopers in the military action side, it never dominates - this is a much more subtle book and doesn't attempt to glorify war and killing.

Like many modern SF novels - particularly the military action type - the main character is female. What's fascinating given the discussions about male and female main characters is that it doesn't make any difference to the reader identifying with her - it makes you wonder why this took so long to happen. It's just an excellent example of space opera at its best.

There were one or two small issues, mostly editorial. The first few pages were difficult to follow - if you just go with the flow, you do pick up what it's referring to, but Cameron deliberately introduces a flurry of not-quite-clear concepts. This isn't bad - I rather like it - but might put some readers off. The book has been converted from US (well, Canadian) into English spelling, but rather irritatingly the title hasn't been. And there were a few examples - hardly surprising in a book this length - of word repetition and other slightly clumsy bits of writing you might expect to be fixed in the edit. However, all this is trivial.

This is the first half of a two-book series - it works fine as a standalone, but it's hard to imagine anyone reading it and not wanting to read the other title as well. 

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Review by Brian Clegg

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