Friday 12 April 2024

Firewalkers by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Solaris) | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #288, September–October 2020).

Another short book exploring the effects of global warming. In this possible future, the equatorial region of Africa might be the centre of a ever-expanding desert, but it was still the most convenient place to build Ankara Achouka, an anchor for the space elevator to the Grand Celeste, a colony ship up in orbit.

Before the rich and privileged can travel up there, they spend a night in the Roach Hotel. The less well-off, those that have survived this long, live in nearby slums and scramble for the scraps of work needed to keep the hotel running. If the book wasn’t so interested in action, it would have made a good allegory.

Nguyễn Sun Mao is a firewalker, a youngster who goes out into the burning desert to fix things. He’s portrayed in a refreshing way – feels unusual to read a new book where a sympathetic male character experiences lust, let alone one where the physical consequence of that emotion is mentioned.

Mao’s likeable team also includes Mutunbo Lupé, whose family lived here before the anchor was built, and Hotep, one of the first children born on the Grand Celeste. She was kicked out for odd, uncontrollable behaviour, and now wraps her pale face in bandages to protect against the sun.

This mission is to stop the brownouts affecting the hotel, leading them south to the Old Estate, abandoned three generations ago to mad scientists and their monsters. They will discover, through a series of exciting, well-drawn incidents, that they are not the only ones angry at being abandoned to a dying Earth.

There are echoes here of stories like Damnation Alley and The Cursed Earth, and it would have required very little retooling to work as a Fallout tie-in. But that’s partly why I liked it. There’s something rather soothing about the apocalypse being treated as an adventure playground.

And while it might not be ground-breaking, it’s a solid story, and the quest does take us to some unexpected places. Only in this genre do you get a line like, ‘And the locusts were three feet long.’ The author’s fans may consider the signed hardback version to be good value for money. Casual readers might instead plump for the ebook. Stephen Theaker ***

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