This week, I’m stepping back in time to review Gareth L. Powell’s second novel The Recollection, soon to be available in a shiny new tenth anniversary edition from Solaris. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
While there’s something very rewarding about losing yourself in a trilogy or series of books spanning centuries or even millennia, it can be nice for a change to go one and done with a story. Such is the case with The Recollection, but don’t let its standalone nature fool you – this is every bit as ambitious in scale and scope as some multiple volume series.
The story opens in what seems to be present day London, with artist Ed in a sticky situation over gambling debts. Bailed out by his brother Verne, a BBC journalist, it’s not long before the two fall out, Verne storming off to board the tube. Before Ed’s horrified eyes, however, a glowing archway opens up and swallows him. Determined to rescue him, Ed and Verne’s wife Alice set off through another archway, taking them on an epic journey across worlds.
Meanwhile – or rather, 400 years in the future – Trader Captain Kat Abdulov is down on her luck. Stranded on the planet of Tiers Cross and unable to afford fuel for her starship the Ameline, she has been forced to take odd jobs just to make ends meet. The promise of paying passengers looks like it might improve her fortunes, and is soon followed by a proposition from the family that exiled her which could see a return to a better way of life. But in the far reaches of the galaxy, something is stirring that could have dire consequences for not just our heroes, but for the whole universe.
Part portal hopping adventure and part space opera, The Recollection is jam packed with ideas. The clash between contemporary London and science fiction future is extremely pronounced, with the switch between the two feeling like a rug pull moment even when you know it’s coming, but this is testament to how well the different settings are realised. The cosily mundane world of Ed’s London with its soap opera style events feels utterly real, whilst the galaxy-spanning future of Kat’s is crammed full of interesting ideas and thoughtful details which give it a believable grittiness.
As Ed and Alice set off through an archway of their own, however, things become a lot less mundane for them. They find themselves in dire straits more than once on their journey, with their nature of travel allowing Powell free rein to create all kinds of worlds which vary in their hospitability. Whether from the environment itself or from local fauna, the two find themselves imperilled plenty of times on their journey, with the switching between their story and Kat’s giving a real “Just one more page” feeling of readability. Ed and Alice will be left in a precarious situation at the end of a chapter, only for Kat to be chasing down rival Trader Captain Victor Luciano in a high stakes game of cat and mouse in the next. It’s all rather thrilling.
There’s plenty of hard sci-fi thrown into the mix too, with special attention given to the nature of interstellar travel and its accompanying chronological considerations. This is not a universe where people can just appear where they want to instantaneously, nor is it one in which they can easily have a conversation across thousands of light years. This brings with it plenty of challenges for the characters – the difficulty of maintaining relationships, the unreliability of trade deals, the inability to warn of imminent disaster – but also lots of opportunities for some extremely interesting storytelling which might not be immediately apparent from the outset.
But in the background of all of this lurks the big bad of the story, the Recollection itself. Without wishing to stray into spoiler territory, there is a welcome touch of sci-fi horror to the way this unfathomably alien entity operates. Powell never gets really heavy on the gore here, but there are more than a few moments where you might find yourself wincing or cringing at the grisly fates that befall its victims. There are plenty of big set piece moments throughout The Recollection, but the biggest of all are when characters come up against the titular antagonist – exciting peaks of action which are guaranteed to have you tearing through the pages.
With ambitiously twisty dual timelines which converge extremely satisfyingly, as well as tons of imaginative, scientifically informed concepts, The Recollection is an entertaining slice of cinematic sci-fi; one that I’m extremely glad I was spurred on to read by the arrival of this anniversary edition. It’s out with Solaris on the 29th of April, and you can order your own copy through this affiliate link.