The Gone-Away World - Nick Harkaway
One underused trope I'm very fond of is the concept of a world out of synch, where the laws of reality don't quite work any more. Often this is restricted to short stories such as Robert R McCammon's Something Passed By or Jack Vance's* The Relict, but here Harkaway has gone for a book-long attempt at the idea. Not far in our own future, something terrible has happened to the world, and our nameless protagonist now spends his time in a nameless bar on the fringes of reality. Called out to deal with a suspicious fire in the vital pipeline, it looks like his past may be about to catch up with him...
Get more than twenty miles from the Pipe and you were in the inimical no-man's land between the Livable Zone and the bloody nightmare of the unreal world. Sometimes it was safe, and sometimes it wasn't. We called it the Border, and we went through it when we had to, when it was the only way to get somewhere in any reasonable length of time, when the alternative was a long drive around three sides of a square and the emergency wouldn't wait. All the same, we went in force and we went quickly, lightly, and we kept an eye on the weather. If the wind changed, or the pressure dropped; if we saw clouds on the horizon we didn't like, or strange folks, or animals which weren't quite right, we turned tail and ran back to the Pipe. People who lived in the Border didn't always stay people.
Following the dramatic opening chapter is a lengthy flashback covering our hero's life so far. The first-person narrative crackles along whimsically enough, in the manner of a Tom Robbins wannabe writing a quirky autobiography, but at first it's hard to see what the point of it all is, as we follow our protagonist through school, college and martial arts lessons. The relentless banter is rather wearing at first, until we hit the war zone, at which point the comic mixes with the horrific to create something quite special, and we find out exactly why we've had this extended diversion into the past. As soon as we catch up with events, the story takes yet another turn, and Harkaway presents us with a very clever twist that throws the whole book into a completely different light.
The lyrical and rather breathless style takes a bit of getting used to, but beyond that, this is a very good book. It's dark and it's funny; there's a doomsday weapon and some astute character dynamics; there are ninjas and there are pirates. And, glory of glories, it's not the first part of a trilogy, so you can read this and get the whole story without needing to wait an age for part two. This is a step to the side from traditional SFF, and so may be a bit much if you're after a standard space opera or epic, but I enjoyed it immensely.
*Not actually certain that it was Vance, as Googling has brought no joy, but trust me, the story's a corker and worth looking out for in older anthologies.