Monday 9 November 2020

The Saints of Salvation by Peter F. Hamilton

The alien Olyix are besieging Earth, whose great cities stand protected by forcefields, each one powered by a quantum entanglement portal leading to distant colony worlds. One-by-one the fields and the cities they protect are failing, the inhabitants captured and cocooned for an unknown fate. The defenders of Earth are preparing to launch a counter-attack, knowing they are only buying time for the great exodus fleets which are hurtling into deep space, intending to preserve humanity for the eventual fight back. In the distant future that fight is now underway, with myriad different human societies and several alien species allying for a direct strike on the Olyix home system. If they succeed, they will free trillions of lives from imprisonment; if they fail, the galaxy will be subjected to a reign of religious terror. Key to the victory are the Saints, the first human to recognise the threat of the Olyix, and whose fates remain a mystery.

Peter F. Hamilton has spent more than a quarter of a century writing a potent combination of science fiction, mixing formidable scientific and technology speculation with fiendish readability and accessibility, along with characters who remain sympathetic and human in their motivations. Whether it's near-future techno-noirs thriller or far-future, posthuman cosmic epics, his ability to write page-turning novels remains undimmed.

The Salvation trilogy, here reaching a conclusion after Salvation (2018) and Salvation Lost (2019), is Hamilton working in a new setting and milieu, and shaking up his standard space opera format with some interesting new structural techniques. This trilogy is notable both for its relative brevity - the trilogy as a whole is only slightly longer than one of his longest, shelf-annihilating single novels like The Naked God or Great North Road - and its clear focus with a restrained number of characters and subplots. Some fans may miss the vast array of characters and cultures clashing across multiple storylines, but others (particularly those with an aversion to books that threaten to break their wrists every time they pick them up) will find his sense of purpose in this trilogy is more preferable.

The first novel in the trilogy had a great, Hyperion-style focus on the individual "Saints," the humans who first discern the scale of the alien threat through their individual experiences, fleshed out in almost self-contained, backstory-heavy novellas. The second novel couldn't sustain that device but continued the structure from the first book between alternating between events in the early 23rd Century and an unclear period in the distant future, building up impressive narrative momentum between the two timelines. Some may wonder why Hamilton adopted that structure in lieu of a more linear narrative, but The Saints of Salvation makes the reasoning clear, and it's very impressively handled.

Hamilton does have a slight weakness with endings. His classic Night's Dawn Trilogy is oft-criticised for its maybe-too-neat ending, whilst the Commonwealth Saga duology's second book was decidedly weaker than the first. His later series have had stronger finales, but they were also somewhat slighter works without quite the same feeling of tense horror that he nailed in those earlier series. The Salvation Trilogy brings back the horror in spades and also nails its ending, delivering a massive, widescreen-style space opera finale with more explosions, hyper-advanced space battles and exotic technology than sometimes seems feasible.

There are hints that this isn't quite the end. Hamilton has expressed a preference for messier endings following The Night's Dawn, and the finale to this novel leaves several key questions open to speculation. Whether he intends to return to this universe with more books is unknown at present (Hamilton has projected possibly a different setting for his next work), but he leaves enough track laid to pursue future storylines there if possible.

Negatives are few. Perhaps the characters aren't quite as memorable as in his previous works (there's no equivalent of Paula Myo here), maybe the story hinging once again on an ultra-rich but fortunately benevolent super-corporation run by a quasi-immortal philanthropist is a bit of an overdone trope, maybe this last volume jettisons a few quieter character moments in favour of exposition, but it's hard to criticise a book which slams its foot to the accelerator and moves the plot to a grand crescendo without any filler. Certainly some of Hamilton's earlier weaknesses are long gone (the trilogy lacks any slightly embarrassing sex scenes you have to flick past, which bogged down some of his early work).

As it stands, The Saints of Salvation (****½) delivers an epic, fast-paced and well-characterised grand finale to an enjoyable trilogy. The trilogy isn't quite up to the engrossing scale of Hamilton's best work, but it's still one of the strongest space opera series of recent years. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.


Andy said...

I may go back and finish the trilogy given your positive review. I'm a massive fan of the Commonwealth, and I give Hamilton credit for starting a new universe and not doing derivative work in an old one. But so much of the technology is very similar to other Hamilton novels, but less good (I couldn't stand the tech speak of every word ending in ez) and I didn't care about any of the characters except for the saints, so the second book left me cold.

Thadlerian said...

"Peter F. Hamilton has spent more than a quarter of a century writing ... characters who remain sympathetic..."

OK I have some issues with this statement.

Blakey UK said...

I'd not realised this last one was out. I've not read any of this series, but loved all his other works. Thanks again for writing these reviews.