Major Tom to Ground Control – The Explorer by James Smythe

‘The Explorer is the second James Smythe novel I have read.  The first, The Testimony, was an unusually structured ‘End of Days’ novel, that opens with a mysterious voice being heard across the globe.  Overall the novel is a slow-burning, thoughtful meditation on the nature of faith.  It is utterly compelling.  The Explorer is very different yet equally captivating.

The premise is simple. Set in the near future, a manned spaceship is heading away from Earth and beyond the moon.  It’s boldly going to a galaxy far far… No it’s not really, but it is heading deeper into the Solar system than humankind has ever been before.  It is on the ultimate voyage of discovery.

From the outset this book confounded my expectations. I knew bad things would happen to the crew, but I had envisaged Smythe would treat us to a science fiction ‘And Then There Were None’. So it was a great surprise when by page 11 all the crew, bar one, we’re dead.  How was Smythe going to fill another 250 pages with only one character?  Well that, of course, would be telling.

Smythe has woven a taut psychological thriller, that draws on fear of the unknown and the debilitating effects of isolation.  Once again, the author has opted for a quiet thoughtful approach rather than create the bombastic explosive story that lesser authors may have chosen.  Smythe’s control of the tension is, by and large, spot on. ‘The Explorer’ is reminiscent of Stephen King’s early short fiction.

In the latter half of the book, the pace ebbs slightly, and as with ‘The Testimony’, I couldn’t see how proceedings could be brought to a satisfactory end. I need not have worried. The novel’s conclusion is expertly constructed, and the denouement jaw-dropping.  It’s the closest thing I have seen in literature to a ‘Sixth Sense’ type reveal, that will have you thumbing back through the book, to check all the pieces were there.  I can assure you they are, and you won’t quite believe you missed them. Things are even left open for a sequel, and such is the open nature of the tale, it could be taken in any number of directions.  I can’t wait to see which one the author chooses.

If The Testimony marked James Smythe as an author to watch, then the Explorer demands that he is one to follow. An excellent novel.

Many Thanks to James and his publisher Harper Voyager for providing me with an advanced copy of this book.  James can be found on Twitter @jpsmythe where he ruminates on books, games and chocolate.  Explorer is available as an ebook from 20th December 2012 and as a hardback from 17th Jan 2013

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