Return to Spatterjay
By Cheryl Morgan
Way back in 2002 (was ConJosé really that long ago?) I reviewed Neal Asherís novel, The Skinner. I loved it. The book had a fascinating combination of a really over-the-top alien world and a very human story of mass murders, love and redemption. I had a lot of hope for Asherís future as a fascinating writer. However, since that time Asher appears to have taken the (probably sensible) decision that his commercial viability lies more with the over-the-top violence aspect of his work than the interesting plots and characters. I was very disappointed with The Line of Polity, which contained very little except increasingly violent combat. Now Asher has produced a sequel to The Skinner. Heís also got a nomination for this yearís Philip K. Dick award for Cowl, a book I havenít read. So I decided to take a look and see what he was up to these days.
The new book, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, springs directly from events at the end of The Skinner where the policeman, Sable Keech, who has had himself reanimated as a "reification" or living corpse so he can continue to hunt down Jay Hoop, is returned to mortality in part thanks to the bizarre virus that grants near immortality to the denizens of the planet that bears Hoopís nickname.
Ten years have passed on Spatterjay, and the Old Captains still roam the planetís seas, harvesting the deadly creatures that live there and seeking for reasons to carry on their indestructible lives. Meanwhile, other interests still chase after "sprine," the one chemical capable of killing these tough old men. Into this world comes the Cult of Anubis Arisen, led on pilgrimage by one Taylor Bloc to the site of Keechís resurrection. Given that Spatterjay has little land, and the local authorities donít allow transport more powerful than sailing ships, Bloc and his followers build a giant ship, which they name after their inspiration, hence the title of the book.
Those of you who have read The Skinner will want to know what has happened to favorite characters. Sniper, the war drone, has been acting Warden for the planet for most of this time, but has finally saved up enough money for a new and heavily armed shell and has gone back to being a lone and dangerous freelancer. Windcheater, the intelligent Sail, is now the effective ruler of the planet and is doing his best to encourage education amongst his fellow indigenous creatures. Olian Tay has founded a bank based on sprine, about the only thing on Spatterjay that has any value. And beneath the sea, Vrell the Prador lies dying in his fatherís spacecraft. On Spatterjay, however, nothing stays dead for very long. The virus soon begins to work its magic on the invalid Prador. By the time the new books starts, Vrell has become something that is no longer Prador, and not a Skinner, but probably more dangerous than either.
To a large extent the book is a re-hash of themes from The Skinner. We get the same chapter headings detailing the bizarre life forms of the planet. Janer Anders is back with his masters, the hornet hive mind. Vrell is his usual psychopathic but sympathetic self. Old Captains such as Ambel, Ron and Drum all put in an appearance. Erlin is once again struggling to come to terms with her longevity. Thereís a lot of good stuff here, and if you havenít read The Skinner youíll probably be quite impressed with the book.
On the other hand, if you have read The Skinner youíll probably see Voyage as more of the same, but less so. The plot is much less involved. Thereís far less moral ambiguity about the characters. We learn almost nothing new about Spatterjay and its life forms. Even Peck, Captain Ambelís mate, is far less amusing than he was in the earlier book (although in his defense heís a lot more sane by this time). The only new character of any great interest is a giant whelk (and on Spatterjay giant whelks are very serious creatures indeed), and sadly she doesnít come out of the story nearly as well as Windcheater came out of the earlier book.
It is probably very unfair of me to compare all of an authorís works to one brilliant book. And of course Asher is entirely within his rights to write the sort of books he wants to write. I suspect there is a much bigger market for the type of over-the-top violence that he specializes in than the sort of book I like to read. But part of my job here is to be consistent about my tastes and therefore I have to say that, for me at least, while this was an entertaining book, Asher can do better.