The Departure (Owner Novel 1) Hardcover – 5 Sept. 2011
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But, although this is as well written and the characters are as full and real as in his other books; the content is very violent and disturbing to the point of revulsion. And I will try to do this without a spoiler, his chapter on Serene Galahad and her Father, made me feel physically sick and I actually ended up skipping several pages rather than read it in full.
This is not to say the book is not worth reading or is not a fascinating take on a totalitarian society, but it is not for the faint hearted.
Imagine the best car chase you ever saw in a movie. For me, that was what this book equated to. I really enjoyed it, with my heart in my mouth for half the time.
Set in our near-future, Earth has become a dystopia that is all too believable if one were to weld together the European Union, Stalinism and man's worst nature. Control of the population is strict and harsh, with huge numbers of citizens considered effectively worthless due to mechanisation of industries. Over this rules a Committee which is nightmarish in its total lack of morality and empathy for ordinary people. It is into this situation that Alan Saul wakes up, with blanked memories and some pretty sophisticated neural hardware on his way to an incinerator in Calais.
I won't go into a huge synopsis of this first book, instead leaving it to the reader and recommending it wholeheartedly. Neal Asher has superb express train style, with the story keeping up a constant pace just as with his numerous Polity-based stories. Just as in his other work, there is plenty of action constantly throughout this opening volume and a pleasing jump-off point into the second volume. Maybe some people don't feel comfortable with the fact that this is a believable story set in our near future which is set in a world where superstates combine and humans become so much dispensible chaff to the overlord class. As an opener to the Owner trilogy it hooked me, and I eagerly anticipate the third volume as the second book is equally gripping and contains even more death and mayhem on a planetary scale.
Well done Mr Asher. An excellent departure from the Polity and well worth digging into the Owner trilogy.
Before I go into my review of the novel, I need to give you a little background on what I was expecting. The Departure is not Neal's first venture into Owner territory, he's written four short stories (Proctors, The Owner, Tiger, Tiger, and Owner Space), and I love them all - if you read my review of The Engineer ReConditioned you can see just how highly I rate them (the fourth, Owner Space, is from the Galactic Empires anthology). I knew that The Departure was going to focus on the early days of the Owner, not the future depicted in the other stories, but I enjoyed them so much I had massively high expectations for any Owner novel. I think that's where the trouble began, and why it ultimately took me two attempts and over a year before I managed to read it.
The Departure is the story of Alan Saul, a man who, on the way to his death, awakens in an over-populated world ruled with an iron fist by the Committee. With next to no memory and an AI named Janus inside his head, he vows to rediscover who he is, learn what truth he can, and take revenge upon his torturer and, in turn, the Committee themselves.
There is nothing subtle about The Departure, that's for sure. From the totalitarianism of the Committee, to the all out, in your face violence, this novel delivers plenty of action with some great set pieces. Alan Saul is a great character to read, and his progress throughout the novel is satisfying, especially the way he's tied to Janus. It's an interesting concept, and put into Asher's hands it evolves rapidly to encompass every aspect you could imagine - and some you probably can't.
While the main focus is on Saul, there is another thread running throughout the novel, one of the Antares base on Mars and the events after the discovery by Var that it is being abandoned by the Committee, but not without them sending instructions to their subordinates running the base. It's interesting to see the struggle between the sides as they try and gain control of the base, and how they need to look to the future to survive the isolation.
Despite the typical Asher action and all else I enjoyed, The Departure was a difficult book. Perhaps it's because I enjoy his Polity novels so much, and this is big change to what he's given us before, or perhaps (and more likely) it was my high expectations. I found much of the book to be either black or white, with very little shades of grey to keep things interesting. When you have a completely evil organisation at the heart of a story I think the task of telling an interesting story is harder, though Asher tries damned hard to do so, not entirely succesfully.
At the end of the day The Departure worked for me, but not as much as I would have hoped. It works as a starting point for the Owner series, establishing the good guys, the bad guys, and setting events in motion. Now the setting up is done I expect much more from the sequel, Zero Point, and I won't be as forgiving if it doesn't meet the expectations I have.
Top international reviews
A little on the gory side in places but well thought out story!
The setting itself is quite well thought out and consistent. Most of the technology is believable except where it is most important. The story suffers under several deux-ex-machina moments where the protagonist is using his own personal technology upgrades to change the odds.
As a summary it is:
fast paced and thrilling
hard to get a connection to the characters
in many parts the technology is unrealistic
The writing is dynamic, the action never ending, there was some gore (which is not really my thing), but overall there was a techy feeling mixed with dystopia that worked very well.
I can see this making a great screenplay as well.
The central idea of a post human fused man machine is really interesting concept but the author never really gets to grips with what this means or might mean. The other characters are thinly drawn. Serene Galhad the cartoon evil world overlord is so villainous as to be laughable.
All the other characters are similarly one dimensional and lacking motivation. They are mostly not instigators just responders in the story.
The style of the writing is at times frustrating. Basically it goes hero doing well doing better, giant setback the hero did not foresee and this is the smartest being in the known universe. Similarly all the other characters get to go well better and better then a major setback.
Its very repetitive, one note plot device that once you notice it is rather annoying.
Good space opera with great ideas that are not developed.