My 2015 is starting to simmer nicely now. After a lucklustre first half, I’ve started to find some books that I am really enjoying. Alexander Maskill’s debut novel, The Hive Construct, continued the trend, by keeping me entertained throughout.
The Hive Construct dropped through my letterbox unannounced but I knew immediately it was a book I wanted to make time for. The premise looked interesting and it won the Terry Pratchett Prize for a first novel. Maskill is a graduate of Leicester University, as am I, and despite a twenty year difference in our graduating years, this lent me an extra affinity for the novel and its author. Maskill wrote The Hive Construct whilst studying for a computer science degree, which tells us he’s both dedicated and talented. The central spine of the novel owes much to his academic pursuits. Its integral components stem from speculation about the evolution of computers.
The Hive Construct is set in the nearish future, though the world is a very different place. Set into a crater in the middle of the Sahara desert is the city of New Cairo. It’s a technological melting pot, filled with just about every cultural reference you can imagine. It is something like a future Constantinople.
Like all cities New Cairo has its haves and have-nots, with the former ruling over the latter. Political unrest is an everyday feature of life in the city, but things have taken an ugly turn. The people of New Cairo have been struck by plague. The mysterious “Soucouyant” virus is causing deaths all across the city, but it is the poor who are worst affected. With tensions bubbling, the city is closed to prevent the escape of the virus into the wider world. Now a sealed system, New Cairo is a pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Enter Zala Ulora. activist, hacker and wanted for multiple murder. She steals into the city to investigate the virus after it killed her friend. In Maskill’s world people have hardware implanted inside them to aid biological processes. Nearly everybody is enhanced in some way. The virus is attacking these enhancements, but is it a biological pathogen or something more synthetic, like rogue code? Zala’s investigations put her in the crossfire between government forces and the anti-government activists who vie for equality.
The novel is neatly split into techno-thriller and political-thriller. Maskill’s New Cairo is well-drawn and highly evocative. It feels very real, and not too far-fetched an extrapolation of what the future might hold. Perhaps not surprising considering his background but Maskill’s vision of how technology might advance feels entirely credible, giving the novel great weight. The politics of the novel are simple but no less powerful for being so. The unwashed masses vs the ivory towered elite is a centuries old tale, and one that has rarely tired in the telling. The pace of the novel is good, and whilst the denouement won’t take your breath away, the journey there will certainly have you gasping. The cast of characters is strong, with likeable and less-likeable people on both sides of the argument. There are some great set-pieces, and with exciting but realistic action; Maskill has thought out his technology well.
The Hive Construct is a very accomplished debut from and author apparently with ideas to burn. Enjoy from first page to last this book is well worth a look.
Manny thanks to the team at Del Rey for sending me a copy of the book.