Only in the last few years with the publication of Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Colin Greenland's Take Back Plenty, have space operas regained the critical acclaim to match their undoubted success commercially. Colin Greenland's new novel Harm's Way continues in this trend and yet manages to buck it completely. Harm's Way is not a space opera but a space melodrama, a dark, witty romp through an alternate history where men have traversed the aether of space to enlarge Her Majesty's Empire.
Authors have asked before 'What if man had been able to travel through space during the peak of the British Empire?' -- which essentially sums up the background to this novel -- though only (to my knowledge) in the form of role-playing games. Yet this does not detract from Harm's Way at all, for this alternate view of history provides a fascinating background. From the dinginess of the space station where our eponymous heroine is brought up, to the red dust of mars, Greenland has woven a rich milieu, which is intrinsic to the book, rather than merely a backdrop. Alternate history is always a dangerous road to tread as it is more difficult to maintain the conviction of the readers, who, unlike readers of fiction set in the future, have pre-formed ideas about the styles of the time, particularly speech. Greenland has, to my mind, succeeded: his use of the language and attitude of Victorian England, while not perfect, does not jar or shatter the illusion the reader must build in any piece of speculative fiction.
Harm's Way is a coming of age story. Sophie Farthing is a motherless waif who stows away in a space yacht and leaves her childhood behind as she searches for the truth about her parentage and about herself. She sees the kindness and the cruelty of humanity and emerges a wiser, stronger woman. The story itself is simple and I found that I had picked up enough of the clues to work out the mystery well before the end. In many other books this might have been a problem, but not in Harm's Way. The narrative is, for the most part, in the first person, which means that Greenland sacrifices some suspense to the increased characterisation of our heroine and indeed, it is the characters in the novel, particularly Sophie, that I found most interesting. The only change in style occurs at the very beginning, the very end and occasional points in between when the narrative changes to third person for parts of the story that our heroine did not experience. At first I found these breaks a little distracting but I began to appreciate the extra insight they afforded.
Harm's Way is by no means a perfect novel. It has its flaws -- the lack of suspense being the greatest among them ‹ and neither the plot nor the background are totally original, but the characterisation, his skilled use of the background and the sheer zest of the writing more than compensated. It is not a novel for those looking for serious comment or enlightenment but the pace and humour carried me along and I found I had enjoyed Harm's Way more than any book I have read in some time.