Map of Blue Book Balloon

15 December 2020

#Blogtour #Review - Gallowglass by S J Morden

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S J Morden
Gollancz, 10 December 2020
Available as: PB, 373pp, e, audio
Source: Advance PB copy
ISBN: 9781473228542

I'm grateful to Gollancz for an advance copy of Gallowglass to consider for review and for inviting me to take part in the book's blogtour.

Gallowglass is a fascinating piece of writing.

I frequently find that a good place to begin in assembling my thoughts for a review is to think about the book's genre and its place within that genre. Sometimes there's not a lot to say, but sometimes this can really cast a light on the book. Gallowglass is a case in point. It's - obviously - science fiction (a book about chasing asteroids? Or course it is!) and it's obviously also got cli-fi overtones (the book is set a few decades hence when the effects of global warming are really biting, and Morden begins every chapter with a quote - a real quote - highlighting either the reality of climate change, or the squirming of denialists seeking to obfuscate the debate).


There is something else going on here, and when I worked it out I just cackled in delight.

Consider. Our hero Jaap van der Veerden (Jack to his few friends) is a scion of a fabulously wealth shipping family. He's sheltered and protected from the ravages of climate change, living in a fortified compound with high fences and ditches to keep out the indigent and HVAC to keep out the rising temperatures. But there's a price. Jack's parent want to live forever, and they may have the money to achieve that. And they want the same for their son. Jack, though, wants out of this cloistered existence. So he decides to run away - not a trivial thing to do given his parents' power and influence, but he has laid his plans well and has allies.

The sequence describing this escape is tautly written and never lets up. It also allows Morden to highlight some of the effects of climate change - the refugee camps and the constant threat of flooding, alongside the privileged life of the few. But it also leads into the heart of this book, as Jack, frustrated by his parents' long reach, falls in with a plan, both morally and legally dubious, to capture an asteroid and nudge it back towards Earth so that it can be mined for resources. It's a cut-throat, free-for-all business in which desperate recruits from growing nations are set against each other to do what's necessary in the darkness. Fantastic riches are on offer - riches that could save a nation or boost an individual into the ranks of the 1%, outclassing even Jack's parents.

With so much at stake, with so much desperation, anything is possible once a crew is out there on its own. Jack soon finds himself in fear not just for his future as a free man but for his very life. There is no margin in space for error, malice or miscommunication and he's on a ship with crew who mistrust this privileged young man from the outset. But the others have secrets and pasts too. Can they bond, learn to work together, "be Crew"? Can they, in short survive?

So, to return to my genre discussion above - welcome, readers, to Treasure Island for the 21st century.

In painstaking detail with enough hard science to convince that this might all work, Morden shows us how, with technology already nearly close, such an expedition might be mounted.

In painstaking detail with a heft of emotional truth to convince that this is how humans really would behave, Morden shows how what each member of the crew brings to that dark, far frontier, far from civilisation, will determine what part they play and whether the crew as a whole will survive.

It is a nuanced, intelligent study of human nature - Morden is NOT saying "look what happens when people throw off civilisation!" It is civilisation that has brought them to the edge of ruin (those chapter quotes keep reminding us) and this is emphatically not a crew descending into "savagery". Part of the cleverness of this book is the subtle picking out of motivations, often laudable, noble motivations which nevertheless lead to terrible actions - or rational individual decision that collectively lead to catastrophe. In that, of course, the whole story of anthropogenic climate change is encapsulated.

What is at stake here eventually proves to be enormous - even more than that fabulous wealth for an individual or a nation - and the deadly habitat of Asteroid KU2 becomes both an area for the best, and worst of human nature but for a kind of deadly game theory which Jack and his colleagues need to negotiate if they are going to salvage anything.

It's an absorbing story on so many levels. There's the detailed scientific base of the story, which pays appropriate respect to orbital dynamics, the problems of a low-G environment, the grim inevitability of Newton's Laws. There's the emotionally complex bonding (and fracturing) of the crew, a handful of humans in a deeply alien place. There's the moral dimension (or lack of). And there's that whole question of humanity and its ultimate fate, threatened by global heating and apparently unable to address that.

I loved this book for all this, and more. I would recommend it without reservation. Get it on your Christmas list now, or buy as a crafty present to yourself for the festive season. Don't miss this one.

For more information about Gallowglass, see the Gollancz website here.

You can buy Gallowglass from your local bookshop, or online from Hive Books,, Blackwell's, Foyles, WH Smith, Waterstones or Amazon.

For other angles on the book, see more reviews from the tour on the poster below.

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