“Silversands” by Gareth L. Powell – A Review

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(Pendragon Press, hardback, 160pp, £12)

I seem to be having a run of short novels/novellas lately. Maybe it’s a subconscious choice, as I’ve also caught myself praising shorter forms of fiction in particular. Especially with speculative fiction, where the suspension of disbelief is often inherent to entertainment, the shorter novel is often the ideal format.

Suspension of disbelief isn’t really so much of an issue in Silversands, as Powell has crafted a fairly realistic-feeling novel, which particularly struck me near the very beginning, upon realising that there was no artificial gravity. As a science-fiction nut, this impressed me from the off. Artificial gravity has become something of a cliché of sci-fi; often no explanation is given at all, and when one is the story often suffers for as a result. To have a characters floating around is, I’ve found, a rare concession. (When artificial gravity does later make an appearance, it is of the centrifugal flavour, which actually make scientific sense).

The characters are also imbued with an air of realism. The main character’s motivations are clear and understandable from the start, and her confusion/flirtations with despair when the major plot twist smacks her in the side of the head is entirely sympathetic. And along the way, the secondary characters are equally as sympathetic, making some of the trials they suffer with the progression of the plot really resonate with the reader. Maybe I’m just becoming soft in my adulthood, I don’t know, but I thought they worked well.

The plot is, as one would expect with a novel of this length, very fast paced, keeping the reader reading hungrily on. I finished it in about two days, purely because it gripped me by the collar and wouldn’t let me go until I’d finished. The scene changes don’t feel particularly jarring, despite the fact it flits frequently between several locations and groups of characters, and in fact that might be one of the points in its favour. In moving quickly and fluidically between scenes, settings and characters, it manages to sustain an overall commentary, and avoid the annoyance of pulling the reader away at a cliffhanger moment for one character, to bore them rigid with a bunch of people they don’t care about.

In terms of actual criticism, I find myself about to criticise the thing I started off praising. It’s length makes it a perfect light read, but it has the sense it wants to be more than that. In some cases it feels that characters are persuaded into unlikely (and in some cases unpalatable) courses of action with a haste that doesn’t seem to sit right. My feeling as a critical reader is that in places it could have done with a let up of the relentless pace, in favour of sitting down and talking out bits- to give myself a chance to catch my breath, and for the characters to be legitimately persuaded around into a course of action necessary, but not particularly easy.

My only other criticism is the major criticism of the book, and it feels a little unfair. Powell’s writing is up to its usual high standard (see such short stories as The Last Reef and Ack-Ack Macaque), but finds itself let down by some very shoddy editing work. I haven’t much experience with Pendragon, but given what I’ve seen here, I’m a bit concerned. Too frequently, letters are missing from the beginning of sentences or words (“Marcus” becoming “arcus” a couple of times) and in one place it seemed that the first part of a paragraph was missing. It isn’t Powell’s fault, but with a story so dependent on pace, it trips the reader up, and is a real shame.

But on the whole, I really did enjoy this novel. It was fun, but not silly. The characters were strong, the plot engaging, and the writing well beyond competent. But the real triumph, I feel, is the world that Powell has created. A universe with humanity scattered across the stars by unreliable FTL travel is one that has a lot of potential, particularly with the developments at the end of the story. I hope that Powell returns to this universe at some point, and it would be a real shame if some of the characters from Silversands didn’t get a second appearance.
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