Monday, 17 December 2012

The Explorer by James Smythe

There's been quite the flurry of excitement over James Smythe's new sci-fi novel lately, with bloggers all over the country praising it to the skies, so I was really looking forward to diving into my copy to see what all the fuss was about. I read Smythe's first novel, The Testimony, earlier this year and loved it, but this was something quite different.

The novel is set in a fairly near future where various corporations have clubbed together to send a manned mission into space. The mission is simply to explore, to go further than mankind has ever been, and it is hoped that the expedition will capture the public imagination and spark enthusiasm for future space travel. The crew consists of six people, all picked from thousands of applicants for their particular skills. Our narrator is Cormac, a journalist whose job it is to document the trip, and the only one with no technical or scientific knowledge.
Things have already gone horribly wrong when the book begins. The crew have all died one by one in different ways, and Cormac is alone, unable to turn back the ship to return to Earth and trying to reconcile himself to the fact that the oxygen will soon run out and he will die. The first part of the novel is simply his thoughts as he ponders his impending doom; his memories of the trip, his longing for his wife and parents who he will never see again, and emotions which swing from denial to determination and ultimately despair. It's very affecting - in fact, probably the best part of the novel - and Cormac's loneliness, the clinical setting of the spaceship, and the black void of space all combine to give the book a cold, dark atmosphere that's guaranteed to give any reader the heebie jeebies.
Then something unexpected happens. I'm not going to tell you what it is, and I'd urge you to avoid Amazon and anywhere else where you might stumble across a spoilerific review, because half the fun of reading this is in being surprised. There are some very nifty plot twists in The Explorer, each one revealed at optimum moments to keep the reader hanging on the edge of their seat. I reached the point of no return at about 11pm, and knew very well that there was no way I'd be getting any sleep until I'd finished it.
The Explorer follows in the footsteps of some real sci-fi greats and it's not hard to guess who some of Smythe's favourite authors might be, even before he mentions them in his acknowlegements. But even if you're not a fan of sci-fi, or think you're not, you'll still find a lot to love about The Explorer. In many ways the space setting and sciency conundrums are incidental; this is at heart a novel about a man pushed to the very edge of his endurance, who must somehow find the mental fortitude to carry on.
My biggest gripe with The Testimony had been with its ending, which did a bit of a Stephen King-esque fizzle after what should have been its big finish. It also had a number of unanswered questions and, while I don't mind a bit of ambiguity, I thought it pushed the whole "leave the reader to draw their own conclusions" thing a mite too far. This time, James Smythe has got it just right. He doesn't tie everything up in a neat little bow, but the ending is solid and we are left still pondering but not frustrated. He's honing his craft, and I'm really excited to see what else he'll come up with in future. According to his twitter feed, he's just finished a sequel to The Explorer which, if it goes the way I think it might, should be pretty amazing.
2013 is going to have to be a pretty incredible year to come up with many sci-fi books better than this one. Five stars.

The Explorer is published this Thursday in ebook format, and on 17th January in hardback. Thanks to Harper Voyager for providing me with a copy for review.


  1. Great review. I will definitely be checking out this book after reading your review. I'm intrigued!

    1. You'll be even more intrigued once you start reading - it's really clever! I hope you like it as much as I did. :-)

  2. I've deliberately not read your review in depth, just skirted around top and bottom as this is on my pile to read in January. Looks like I'll love it.

    1. Don't worry, I've not put any spoilers in, though lots of reviews I've seen give away important twists so it's good that you're avoiding them. I'm looking forward to seeing what you think.