The current fashion for ‘show, don’t tell’ that writers keep being nagged to follow by editors has clearly by-passed Asher. The opening pages of this book are groaning with information about the world, political situation and the main characters. That said, given just how background goes into making this story work, I’m not sure how else he could have communicated all this stuff. But, if you’re on the verge of tossing the book to one side, my advice is to hang in there. It gets better – and is seriously worth it if your taste runs to space opera. And I mean the real deal, with epic battles involving space-going juggernauts – the hilldiggers of the title.
A terrible war once raged between the two rival planets within a distant solar system. Over the centuries their human inhabitants had ‘adapted’ themselves to the extremely different conditions on the planets, far outside Polity influence. In the midst of this merciless conflict, one side encountered an object suspected of being a cosmic superstring employed as a new weapon by their rivals. Their attack on it caused the object to collapse into four parts, found to contain some kind of alien technology or lifeform, which are stored in a secure space station. While conducting research on this alien entity, now known as the ‘Worm’, a female scientist falls pregnant and subsequently gives birth to quads. She then commits suicide by walking directly out into space…
The war was finally brought to an end by the use of new weapons made possible by research on the Worm. Deployed by space dreadnoughts nicknamed ‘hilldiggers’, their destructive power was sufficient to create entire new mountain ranges out of the vanquished planet’s ravaged terrain. Twenty years after the dust has settled, those four exceptional orphans have grown up to assume significant power and influence within the post-war society. And one of this talented brood seems determined to gain complete control over the deadly hilldiggers. But why?
Told in multiple viewpoint with the majority of characters in third person POV, the main protagonist, David McCrooger, an ambassador from the Polity, tells his slice of the story in first person POV. Although a slightly unusual mix, I think it works. McCrooger’s character leaps off the page with more vividness than the rest and his cussed attitude towards authority figures and anyone else who gets in his way starts to make sense when we learn that he has spent time on Spatterjay and was one of the Old Captains. Which revisits one of Asher’s other worlds outstanding by its wholly bloodthirsty fauna.
Although writing believable three-dimensional characters isn’t his particular thing, Asher does excel at rolling out a complex political situation with colliding social customs and taking the reader on a roller-coaster ride through events when the inevitable fireworks start. And to be fair, I think that McCrooger is probably one of Asher’s best characters to date, partly because he proves to be more physically vulnerable than most of Asher’s posthuman creatures.
The themes raised in this book will be familiar to Asher fans – an examination of posthumanity; social breakdown and the pressures that cause it; and whether the pragmatic sacrifice of a few for the benefit of many, although desirable for strong governance, is really a good thing. Once the pace picks up the book cracks along with plenty of action, while bulging with all sorts of ingenious gismos we have come to expect from Asher and is a thoroughly entertaining read.