Wednesday, 13 July 2011

‘No Man’s World: The Ironclad Prophecy’ – Pat Kelleher (Abaddon Books)

It was way back at the end of June last year that I reviewed the opening chapter in a new series from Abaddon and had a fine old time with it, certainly a fine enough time to have me eagerly awaiting it’s sequel. That book was Pat Kelleher’s ‘Black Hand Gang’; the tale of a regiment of fusiliers who find themselves swapping the battlefields of World War One for an alien landscape that is even more dangerous. You can read the full review Here or you can just keep reading this and see me regurgitate a quote from the review. This one in fact, ‘Black Hand Gang’ does suffer from erratic pacing at times and a narrative approach that can leave a reader floundering. Give it a chance though, ‘Black Hand Gang’ is also a thoroughly entertaining tale that promises great things for the future. I’ll be around to see if the series meets the standard that it has set itself.’

Well, I wouldn’t say that I waited patiently for ‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ to turn up; teaching Hope to do stuff (and then teaching her not to do stuff...) proved to be a lot more time consuming than I’d originally thought and I forgot about this one entirely. You wouldn’t believe how much has gone by the wayside just recently... When ‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ did show up though it didn’t take much for me to be reminded that this was a priority read and I moved it up the pile accordingly. I’ve just finished reading it and a lot of the issues I had with ‘Black Hand Gang’ aren’t there anymore... ‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ makes the step up, in terms of quality, and the end result is another gripping read.

It’s been three months since the Pennine Fusiliers found themselves wrenched from the Somme and deposited on an alien world where the smallest thing can kill you... and will given half a chance. Ammunition and supplies are running low and the alien Khungarri have decided that it is finally time for the Pennines to be culled. A great time then for the battalion’s only tank to fail to report back in from long patrol...
Corporal ‘Only’ Atkins and his Black Hand Gang are sent on an urgent mission to find the HMLS ‘Ivanhoe’ and bring it back to camp before the Khungarri press home their attack. While the camp tries to repel attacks (from both outside and within, the native fauna is insidious if nothing else) Atkins and his crew negotiate treacherous jungle and discover a secret that could have terrible ramifications for the battalion. That’s nothing compared to what they will have to deal with when they finally discover the ‘Ivanhoe’ though. The crew of the tank have become addicted to the psychotropic fuel they have been forced to used; the commander was insane long before then....

Well, that’s two out of two for Kelleher. I had a great time with ‘Black Hand Gang’ and I found that I couldn’t put ‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ down either. The book isn’t without its problems but the power of the story itself really comes to the fore and gave me no choice but to follow it through to the end.

In my review of ‘Black Hand Gang’ I mentioned that a little too much attention to detail spoilt the flow of the plot and had me floundering at just the wrong times. I’m pleased to say that ‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ is a completely different beast. Three months in this alien world appears to have been long enough for our brave Fusiliers to get to grips with the landscape, and the perils within it; we all know where we are now and this means that Kelleher can get on with telling the story itself.

And what a story it is! The reader is given a ‘race against time’ plot where literally everything hinges on Atkins’ ability to get his crew through a number of nasty situations and find the ‘Ivanhoe’. Kelleher doesn’t mince his words letting us know just what’s at stake here (the sub-plot concerning what’s going on at the camp details this in just the right way) and so the smallest threat to the Black Hand Gang takes on a much greater significance. There are lots of these threats to overcome as well, even innocent looking lichen can be deadly... Kelleher is swiftly building up a world that challenges his characters in such a way that you really want to hang around for the outcome. The outcome here blazes with action and suspense as Atkins and men take on the absolute worst that their new home can throw at them. These final scenes (World War One tank takes on all comers...) are more than worth the price of entry.

What I wasn’t so sure about though were some of the portentous things that Atkins and co. came across during their mission. I think there was a slight lack of balance here; when you’re constantly in the thick of the action, short breaks to take in things that will only affect future books don’t have that same impact. I’m fully expecting the secret in the edifice to really kick things off in the next book (same deal with the mysterious metal wall) but they didn’t really add much to the plot here. What we got here was the plot being slowed down again (when it didn't need to be), just for different reasons than before.

Is that such a big deal though when set against everything else that the plot is doing? It is but you can forgive it to an extent, especially now that Kelleher is moving away from the historical roots of the first book and into an alien world where anything can happen. This approach gives all of his characters a chance to really develop and move on in interesting ways; I’m talking mostly about the crew of the ‘Ivanhoe’ here where their addiction to the tank’s fuel sets them apart from the rest of the battalion in increasingly strange ways that make for compelling reading. Other changes are more mundane but no less interesting as the demands of their new environment are gradually forcing characters like Nurse Bell to adapt and make demands of their own.

‘The Ironclad Prophecy’ isn’t without its problems but they are slight and you almost feel a little ungrateful to be mentioning them at all when the rest of the book demands your attention in the way that it does. Bring on ‘The Alleyman’...

Nine and a Quarter out of Ten

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