Heart of Granite by James Barclay
The world has become a battleground in a war which no side is winning. But for those determined to retain power, the prolonged stalemate cannot be tolerated so desperate measures must be taken.
Max Halloran has no idea. He’s living the brief and glorious life of a hunter-killer pilot. He’s an ace in the air, on his way up through the ranks, in love, and with his family’s every need provided for in thanks for his service, Max has everything . . .
. . . right up until he hears something he shouldn’t have, and refuses to let it go. Suddenly he’s risking his life and the lives of all those he cares about for a secret which could expose corruption at the highest levels, and change the course of the war.
One man, one brief conversation . . . a whole world of trouble. . .
When we first meet Max Halloran he is exactly what you would expect a fighter ace to be, all cocky swagger and bravado. He is the best of the best and damn if he doesn’t know it. The version of Earth Max lives in is distinctly different from our own. The discovery of alien technology that can be used to bend DNA has reshaped the political, economic and technological face of the planet. Vast continent-wide factions vie for as much power and resources as they can grasp. Huge armies use monstrous bio-engineered behemoths as mobile command centres and drakes (dragons) have replaced fighter jets as the preferred weapon of choice.
The other drake pilots of squadron Inferno-X are just as gifted, if perhaps not quite so arrogant, as Max. Barclay takes time to explore the dynamics of the group and the interpersonal relationships that exist. Riffing off classic movies like Top Gun, and television shows like Battlestar Galactica, you get to see behind the scenes on the Heart of Granite. The plot quickly establishes the squad room back and forth and that easy, almost familial, camaraderie that develops. This is a group of alpha personalities forced to live, work and survive in close proximity. It is almost taken for granted that drake pilots are expected to live fast and die young.
The aerial combat scenes are frenetic enough to take your breath away. Drakes and their pilots are linked at a fundamental level and it means the pilots are able to pull off incredibly intricate manoeuvres in a split second. Barclay writes these sky battles in a short punchy style. The chaotic chatter that fills the communication channels adds to the sense of tension. Events play out swiftly and tend to be nothing short of nail biting. Try to picture X-Wings taking on TIE Fighters where every ship has been replaced by a dragon. There is even an incident that I’ll describe as a “Porkins” moment* which made me smile
As a counterpoint to all this combat the narrative balances the chaotic action by also exploring the physical and mental cost of being a pilot. The chances of surviving in a state of constant war are slim and the mental stresses and strains of being linked to alien technology means that eventually every pilot is going to suffer a terminal condition known as ‘The Fall’. Those in command are well aware that the only way to win the war is to push their pilots and their drakes as much as is possible. The more Max learns about how command functions, and the inevitability of the Fall, the more he realises that a sinister conspiracy is unfolding.
Sitting somewhere between science fiction, action thriller and fantasy, James Barclay’s latest is firing on all cylinders. There is little better than when a master storyteller gets the opportunity to write something he clearly loves. There is evidence on every page that with Heart of Granite, Barclay is having a ball. This is a blisteringly good start to a new series and I can’t wait to read more. I am a huge fan of Barclay’s Raven novels so it is hardly a surprise that his latest novel fills my heart with joy.
When I finished the novel I realised that I was well and truly hooked. I wanted to know what happens next. What will happen in the ongoing war? How will pilots of Inferno-X fare? How will the revelations that are revealed impact how the pilots do their job?
It would be so easy to hate James Barclay. Accomplished author, actor, social gadfly, veritable man about town and to top it all he is terribly nice to boot. I mean is there anything that he can’t do? Damn his black heart… Seriously though a new book by James Barclay is always cause for celebration and Heart of Granite is no exception. If you’re looking for fast-paced dragon-flavoured action with a whole heap of heart, then look no further.
Heart of Granite is published by Gollancz and is available now.
*One very specific reference for the Star Wars fans amongst you there. You’ll know it when you get there, trust me.