Cowboy Angels - Paul McAuley
This is the latest review book I've had through from Gollancz, and was one I approached with some trepidation - my only previous encounter with McAuley has been his short stories, which I've not been too keen on. Fortunately, this is worlds away from pretentious London ghost-hunters - it's a gritty military thriller with a sci-fi setting, and while the clichés are rampant, it's almost as much fun to read as anything by Richard Morgan.
Parallel universes seem to be quite popular at the moment, and are indeed the technological centrepiece to McAuley's creation. One version of America, calling itself the Real, developed universe-hopping technology in the 60's, and lacking its own version of Vietnam, instead decided to aid all the parallel Americas against their various Communist enemies; the "Cowboy Angels" of the title are the elite agents trained in infiltrating and influencing these other worlds. It's now 1984 and the peacenik President Carter has called a halt to this cross-dimensional empire building, but factions within the military are not so happy with the imposed peace; after a string of murders brings agent Adam Stone out of retirement on the trail of his old friend, his investigation turns up all sorts of nasty secrets, and a conspiracy that spans the known universes...
All fairly standard stuff, as you can see; it's a Cold War spy thriller crossed with 24, with the hard-driving pace and not-entirely-unforseen twists that you'd expect. It's the setting that adds a dash of originality - while some of the wider implications of parallel universes are hand-waved away with a few infodump conversations about quantum probability, I did like the idea of an America so obsessed with fighting the Commies that it will even do it across dimensions. The plot did start to run out of steam towards the end, once the conspiracy had been unmasked and it was all over bar the shootout, but there was enough momentum there to carry it right to the finish.
Naturally, there's not much in the way of character development (it's your usual rogue-agent-on-the-edge/retired-veteran-back-for-one-last-job/girl-who's-a-bit-feisty-but-actually-just-gets-kidnapped-a-lot) but that's not what you read this type of book for anyway. If you're not after anything too deep, and are happy to skate past the paper-thin "science-y" bits linking quantum theory to consciousness and so on, then there's a lot here to enjoy. For all his short-story disasters, I might well give McAuley's other books a try sometime too.