Whenever Peter F. Hamilton writes a novel he makes sure to put in as many words as possible. His latest, Great North Road (2012), is a big one with almost 1100 pages. I don’t mind that, as long as it is written well. Luckily I’ve been reading Hamilton’s novels for some years and although it began with a rough start I can state it has always been easy as the prose is solid and the storytelling right on the mark and nowhere dreary. I know other writers who like the write big books, but most of them simply add words with little relevance that do not contribute much to the story.
Hamilton has been one of the few science fiction authors who has managed to claim a place on my top list. I don’t really need to think about buying a new novel by him and I can just pick it up if I see it. Here I do have to add I haven’t read the story collection he publish a few years ago, but that is mainly because I’m not that much of a short story fan. Their limited length simply fail to satisfy me sufficiently, most of the times.
Great North Road is actually a detective set in a future environment. For a change the time leap is not as great as in his previous novels so the setting contains a lot of familiar elements. The story is also quite earthbound. This time no space battles, sequences of space travel or explorations of future or alien tech. Personally I don’t think an SF author should always stick to the same game to prevent becoming repetitive and find some new challenges. Nevertheless quite some Hamilton tropes remain, like strange not-understood aliens and an array of rather eccentric or peculiar characters.
As usual the cast of characters is huge. A change however is that Hamilton spends more time on characterization. In essence there are five main protagonists (if I am counting right) of which two take center stage. Hamilton spends plenty of time with them to give them all the space they need. Also new in this novel are many sequences of flashbacks that he uses to fill in backgrounds. They are not annoying. Most of the story takes place in two settings so they provide some variation, not only in setting but also in mood and atmosphere. Hamilton also uses the flashbacks to showcase the new universe he has created as the two central settings are very focused and there is relatively little movement. He has spent time developing the new universe and does not want to leave them in the background. I can say that chances are low that Hamilton will write another book in this universe, so it is actually nice to see and know more.
All the time spent on the characters and the flashbacks add more layers to the story. They do not cause complexity but allow Hamilton to create a greater weave which he gradually connects with each other.
The central part of the plot that he has created, which is the storyline focusing on the murder case, is highly peculiar and utterly fascinating. Hamilton wrote investigation storylines before but here he takes it to a new level. It is new and refreshing. Everything happens in a slightly different way that we are used to and that just made it captivating to me.
Around the central part revolves a second storyline. This centers less around the now but more about what happened before and how it affects what happened later. Unfortunately this part is not very original. There are some peculiarities but overall we’ve seen it before. Another downside is that the storyline starts to drag on as it progresses. It is here that the length of the story is felt. Developments are slower and more repetitive. This is simply caused by the fact that Hamilton is not hurrying and does everything step by step until he reached the conclusion. Perhaps he was enjoying himself playing it all out meticulously.
As one can suspect the murder case storyline gets solved before the other storyline. The subsequent endgame then takes to long and the conclusion is suddenly wrapped up quickly. It almost felt as if Hamilton noticed the story was getting too long and that now he had written what he had needed to write, the loose ends were not that interesting anymore and he wanted to be done with. It almost seemed that Hamilton was taking the easy way out. Not that it would be implausible, it was just somewhat unlikely and that was rather in stark contrast to the careful worldbuilding and real people that he had developed.
So the book all around is 99% strong to good with the last 1% having a glitch. I would even have accepted it if Hamilton would have just left the last 20 pages out as these are just silliness in my opinion. No reason to give this novel some bad marks. Endings are always though. In such cases an open ending would be better than to quickly wrap everything up.
There is one last remark I do want to make. The actual plot is not that complex that is it justifies such a big novel. Hamilton simply added details, layers and flashbacks to expand it as much as he could. It did not hurt the pace as he kept that a good constant, although it was nowhere fast. One would almost think he abused the credit he has built up over the years with the big novels that did require all the space they needed. Normally this novel would have been cut to a third of its length (I’m serious) and one would have not lost anything important. Well, that’s just my opinion. Not that I say it’s too long. I love a long and great read and a short book means I will spend less time enjoying myself and thrill will be over far too soon. Anyhow, this is another great one by Peter F. Hamilton. Recommended.