Ack-Ack-Macaque by Gareth Powell – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the latest from Gareth Powell as he tackles the madcap adventures of a cigar-chomping monkey.
“Too much damn good fun, and far too irresistible of a read.” ~Shadowhawk
Often there comes a novel that seeks to break all genre conventions and delivers on an experience so amazing, with a story so out of the blue that it just leaves you wondering how on earth the author came up with such a cool idea. Ack-Ack-Macaque is one such novel, where Gareth Powell puts a cigar-chomping, swearing-like-a-sailor, Spitfire-piloting monkey front and center in international politics alongside the reluctant Prince of a joint United Kingdom and France, and a reporter who has undergone cybernetic brain surgery. A very unique mix I would say.
Off the bat, Ack-Ack-Macaque is not the novel I expected since it takes a somewhat different approach to the leading protagonist than what I had thought it would be. That’s not to say that this is a bad novel, far from it. Ack-Ack-Macaque is a novel that I enjoyed tremendously. The character of Ack-Ack-Macaque himself made for some truly wonderful moments in the book, which were, to be honest, few and far in between. I would have preferred to see a lot more of him than what Gareth gives us. Ack-Ack-Macaque is irreverent, utterly focused, a true badass action hero, and he got some of the best dialogue in the book. The fact that he pilots a Spitfire during World War 2 also holds a ton of appeal since Gareth has written some great aerial combat scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat.
Victoria Valois, the reporter in question, is one of the first characters we meet and it is through her that Gareth kicks off the narrative and the mysteries that later become central to the entire story. She’s somewhat of a retired reporter, so we don’t really get to see much of that side of her, but what we do get is her acting like a reporter should, once he/she’s on the scent of a story. It is a bit tragic that the story in question starts off with her estranged husband’s murder, leading to a digital copy of his mind coming to reside in her brain, due to some wacky brain-related cybernetic technology that is quite widespread in Gareth’s vision of the near-future/contemporary times. For me, this made her a very interesting character and one that I wanted to keep reading about. Victoria also gets to star in some nicely choreographed action scenes which served to enhance her character quite a bit. She is portrayed as a strong character who can stand up to her own very well.
Rounding up the trio of protagonists is Prince Merovech, heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, France, Ireland and Norway, and Head of the United European Commonwealth. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? More than Victoria, Merovech was a really interesting character. I mentioned earlier that he is a reluctant Prince. That has to do with the fact that he finds his life very restrictive and boring. He wants to go “out” and go do normal things, hang out with friends in a bar, or fall in love, or just plain do whatever he wants without anyone’s expectations weighing down on him. Over the course of the novel, he does find that freedom, but one of his life’s biggest secrets is also exposed to him, and the way it changes him is very… fascinating to see. The question becomes, is he going to do the right thing, or is he going to escape his responsibilities.
There are several other characters in the novel of course, like Victoria’s dead husband, her uncle who also captains an intercontinental airship, Merovech’s mother, his girlfriend and her revolutionary accomplices, several cool kickass villains who remind me of both the DC universe super-assassin Deathstroke and his Marvel counterpart Deadpool, and others. In this novel, Gareth has assembled a really delightful cast of characters and he has written all of them with a specific purpose so that none of them feel extraneous or just tagged on for the sake of it. In them, there are ample opportunities to write several spin-off stories, which would be quite suitable for the short fiction format, and something that I would be really interested in.
The reveals that happen in the second half of the novel, particularly as they relate to Ack-Ack-Macaque himself, are really mind-bending, as is the scope of the over-arching plan for world-domination that the bad guys are putting in motion. It all makes Ack-Ack-Macaque a very ambitious novel that is suitably driven to an action-packed, highly entertaining climax through its leading characters. I can’t say this enough, but Ack-Ack-Macaque is a truly amazing novel, showcasing how Solaris Books are right up there with Angry Robot and Night Shade in publishing some truly great fiction that steps all over conventional genre boundaries and proves to be highly enjoyable experiences.
The world-building in the novel is a bit thin at times, but it’s also clear right off the bat that Gareth has given a lot of thought to that particular puzzle. Every few chapters we are presented with a sort of an interlude that gives us an in-world news article, with several “other news items” section that make Ack-Ack-Macaque a really fun read. The style is somewhat as you’d find at any online news portal, and that bit of “realism” is nice to see. The novel is set in two separate timelines, World War 2 with Ack-Ack-Macaque and the year 2059 with Victoria and Merovech, and these two timelines come together in a rather unique and unexpected way, one of the reasons why the novel turned out to be far different than what I’d expected. The standard steampunk elements are also plentiful here, with airships and cross-continental adventures, and pilots and what not; all meshing really well with the near-future that Gareth has created. There’s no one dominant genre at work here, which adds to the charm of the entire setting, and was a fantastic approach in my opinion.
With a near-perfect pacing, excellent world-building, and some truly memorable characters, Ack-Ack-Macaque is a must-read novel, more so since Gareth is already working on the sequel, Hive Monkey, for which Solaris released the cover today. More on that soon, but let me tell you, it’s about ten times better than the awesome cover for Ack-Ack-Macaque.