Crossing the great divide from short fiction to full-length novel writing is one that some writers achieve with consummate ease, while others fall over the edge, disappearing into that stygian abyss with dismay, thinking they were only a few sentences away from perfection, when in reality they were yards away from a good plot.
Knowing this, I admit to feeling a little nervous about reading Gareth L. Powell’s debut novel, Silversands, especially in light of his first collection of fiction, The Last Reef. In my opinion, The Last Reef was the best and most exciting short story SF collection in recent years (and you can read my review of it here) and one of the few collections I still go back to even now (amongst them Hope by James Lovegrove and Barker’s Books of Blood).
So when Silversands was announced I was excited, nervous yes, but excited. I mean, what delights could the writer construct over the course of a novel? Could it match the dizzying heights and imaginations of The Last Reef?
From the blurb:
“In an age where interstellar travel is dangerous and unpredictable, and no-one knows exactly where they’ll end up, Avril Bradley is a Communications officer onboard a ship sent to re-contact as many of these lost souls as possible. But a mysterious explosion strands her in a world of political intrigue, espionage and subterfuge; a world of retired cops, digital ghosts and corporate assassins who fight for possession of computer data that had lain undisturbed for almost a century. . .”
Silversands’ universe requires little introduction; the science fiction tropes within the story are familiar without being unoriginal. There is no plodding back-story to labour over and it keeps that sense of wonder that all good science fiction has. This has its own advantages as we get into the plot from the off and the story rattles along at a good pace. Powell's writing skills are explicit and direct, creating mood and character through economical prose and without exposition. Each scene is lovingly created and you can tell the writer is enjoying his craft here.
The world building is gritty, frontier SF at its best, with the feel of a society not far away from implosion which adds it’s own sense of tension, while the action is also typically dazzling and dynamic – it has its pulpy moments but nothing that the great SF writers such as Harrison or Asimov would be worried about. It’s utterly compelling, and there’s a feeling of crescendo, of sub-plots merging for a big bang somewhere down the line…
…Which is perhaps were I have one quibble: while the book is indeed compelling and fantastically written, it just feels a little unfinished. There were too many lose-ends, like a fine rug with frayed edges, which is okay if you're writing a short story - where the requirement for a satisfactory ending is negated for an "experience" or snapshot of story-telling - but as a novel the ending comes too soon and too many questions are left unanswered to make it wholly satisfying especially for a novel with less than 100 pages. You just wish there was more.
If I’m honest this isn’t a criticism, after all how can you damn fine writing by complaining you wanted more? It’s like telling the best chef in the land you thought the meal was a poor one because you could have eaten more of it.
Culinary euphemisms aside, this is a thoroughly accomplished piece of writing; not one I’d class as a ‘novel’ (novella, probably, and something that could form the back bone of a collection someway down the line), but I’m glad it’s been published and published lovingly (beautifully bound with a great cover) by Pendragon Press. I’m not sure I’ll return to it as much as the well-thumbed Last Reef, but Silversands sits proudly on my bookshelf with other acclaimed genre authors (Dick, Bradbury, Baxter, Banks etc)…
…And you know, Gareth L. Powell doesn’t look out of place amongst them.