Cowl

by Neal Asher

Published by Tor Books

320 pages, 2005


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Idea Overload

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

 

Did someone get the license of that book? Phew, I'm exhausted. Cowl is my first taste of Neal Asher and it was a whirlwind. Even at a not-huge 320 pages, I felt like I'd read an enormous adventure of a book, in no small part because of the number of ideas Asher packed into the novel.

Time travel exists, and there are probably good guys and bad guys, but it's a matter of degree in this futuristic book. Pretty much everyone is some form of bad guy; arrogant, impatient with the slightest weakness, moralistic beings abound and the major example of human nature, Polly, isn't exactly a worthy specimen. Not yet 16, drugged out, a street prostitute, she gets swept up into events beyond imagining.

Asher is excellent at overwhelming the reader. I got lost a lot but that is not necessarily the fault of the storyteller: I just couldn't keep up with all the concepts being presented. This probably means that I should have read more slowly, but the book doesn't really want you to.

It's the near future, and an ugly one. The population that exists is drugged and miserable. Polly is set up, leading a government agent to an alien artifact; she ends up in thrall to the artifact that feeds off her while the acquaintance who set her up ends up dead and living in Polly's head as AI. The cloned, created killer who was to reclaim the artifact -- a "tor" -- is taken by a group of people who have traveled back in time. The book swings between Polly's story, that of Tack, the killer who's reprogrammed to obey the various beings who decide he's useful. On the way, we stop back in history, meeting Henry VIII and Claudius. (What, we couldn't just travel back in time for a weekend and not meet someone famous?)

Cowl is dizzying, as it's meant to be. Action cuts back and forth between places and times. I got the message a bit too often, with visits by Polly back farther and farther, and appearances by a monster -- the Torbeast, that eats everything with horrid noises and sights. Who or what created Cowl, a being that hates and wishes to destroy anything and everything is never explained; it just is and I found that a little frustrating. Maybe I want motive, maybe I want too much to understand the whys of the events I was shown, not just to be overwhelmed by them.

There were almost too many ideas in this book. It was hard to envision the weapons, the ways that the time travel machinery worked, which were the Heliothane, which the Umbrathane, all of whom shared the condescending harsh outlook that whatever, whoever was at hand was a tool to be used in their battle.

Cowl is a cold story. Not that I was looking for happiness and a cute little fable; it's clear from page one the sort of dystopia we're dealing with here. But Cowl, while fast-moving and well-written, is unrelentingly cold, vicious and violent in every chapter, and pretty much on every page. The reader doesn't get much of a break, except when Polly meets a couple of jugglers and gets to perform the apple trick with them (juggle the apple and the pie, eat the pie, cut the apple in half, you know). The pacing is that of a suspense thriller, where you can never let down for a minute, as something else is just around the corner waiting to eat you, or blow up, or destroy you in some way. And pretty much everything is massive, especially as we travel backwards in time and get to see the animals from mastodons to all forms of dinosaur.

Asher has an amazing imagination and science fiction is lucky to have captured him. I'm just breathless from Cowl and perhaps in need of some warmth and comfort; whether Tack and Polly succeed, or at what price might be beside the point here. There's just so much to take in. | May 2005

 

Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.