Top critical review
Not Hellish, But Not Heavenly Either
on 21 February 2015
Some time ago, I read Philip Palmer's debut novel ''Debatable Space''. Whilst there were aspects of that novel I didn't feel entirely worked, it was a well paced read for the most part and I marked Palmer as a writer to watch. His subsequent novels, ''Red Claw'' and ''Version 43'', have been well received and his fourth, ''Hell Ship'', isn't bad either.
As is Palmer's style, the story is told from the differing points of view of various characters. There is the warrior Sharrock, who returns from a missing to find his home destroyed and his friends and family dead, only to be captured by the Hell Ship and see his planet destroyed. There is Sai-ias, a monstrous alien who has been on the Hell Ship for long enough to have become accustomed to her situation and helps Sharrock acclimatise. There is also Jak, an Olaran explorer who finds various planets the Olarans hoped to trade with destroyed and then loses his own crew in a battle against the Hell Ship and vows revenge.
The first person story telling doesn't seem to work as well in science fiction as it does in other genres, but Palmer has been writing this way since his debut, so it no longer feels as out of place as it did. This being the second of his novels I've read, I've become more familiar with his style and, after four novels, so has Palmer. In a world so different from our own, the differing perspectives help the read come to terms with the vast array of creatures that make up the cast list, varying from humanoid forms to monsters I found it impossible to imagine.
It is this which has long been Palmer's strength, in that he has some weird and wonderful ideas. The vast array of alien creatures on display here is staggering. He has populated an entire world with unique characters, from tree dwelling animals that use compressed balls of their own faeces as weapons to a large being whose urine has healing properties thanks to drinking the water on the ship. Add in sentient trees, a tower protected by storms and air that can translate languages as well as be breathable to creatures from all kinds of atmospheres and you sense Palmer's imagination knows no bounds.
If there is an aspect that lets the book down it is in the execution. There is a segment late on where Jak chronicles the civilisations he finds destroyed, which slows the pace down quite significantly. Thanks to the pace of the story being so high generally, this is quite noticeable and a bit of a distraction. Palmer's imagination may have free rein, but he's not always adept at bringing these characters to life. Many of the characters here are difficult to picture, as we only get aspects of their physiology, rather than a clear picture.
I also felt that the ending disappointed. The build up was so exciting and detailed that the end felt a little rushed by comparison, as if Palmer had reached the limit of what he could do with his ideas and had to conclude. It was an effective ending, but it felt a little weak by comparison. But these minor things aside, it's still a decent read. But whilst Palmer's imagination sustains him in the way it has thus far, he'll remain readable and enjoyable.
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