I went back and forth over this book for quite some time. Do I rate it a four, or possibly a three? If you’d have asked me in the middle of the book I probably would have gone for a two. It’s very much a mixture of ideas and a muddle of talent and while it makes for an interesting read, at times the natural narrative stutters into a void.
The opening of the book sets up the plot very well. Originating as an idea that Terry Pratchett couldn’t capitalise on he pulled in Stephen Baxter to work on the project. You can see a spark of both authors in the concept of a machine called a Stepper that allows the user to literally step sideways into parallel versions of Earth. The ramifications of such an idea are abundant and soon there are many small plotlines branching off from the central premise.
This was an issue for me at first. I was enjoying the interactions between Joshua who can step without the aid of the Stepper invention and Lobsang a reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman who now lives as AI that is known as human in the eyes of the world. Their relationship is one of humour and suspicion. The pair are easily central to the story, but they also provide much of the entertainment. Whenever the focus drifted away to focus on pioneers settling in other worlds I found my attention wavering. They weren’t as fleshed out as Joshua and Lobsang, even bit parts need some personality.
I plunged into the first third ravenous for more information on the Stepper and the parallel Earths. I was intrigued by people getting sick while stepping and the idea that some people could step naturally. There are also those who fear stepping, so altogether they bring the much needed elements to debate the central idea. However the book takes a nosedive in the middle third as Lobsang and Joshua head off to explore the side worlds in an attempt to reach the end of the proposed infinity.
During these scenes all we really see is the view of Joshua from the airship that they are stepping in. There’s an endless sea, there’s an elephant rhino hybrid, there’s a forest. It feels like padding, as if the idea needed dragging out. As soon as the final third kicks in the pace of the story takes off towards a cliffhanger finale to set up for the sequel. By the end I was left breathless by the ideas on display, but why we had to take to scenic route to get there is beyond me.
The writing is fine but I felt as if Terry Pratchett was overshadowed. I saw an interview with Terry about the way they wrote it and it seems as if they each wrote 50%, but the charm that Terry writes with gets lost throughout all the scientific explanations of Baxter. Having never read any Baxter, I’m intrigued to explore more, though.
I actually really enjoyed the book. The upsides were vastly better than the downsides and I walked away wanting to recommend it to people as the idea is sound and the universe being set up is ideal for a series. My hope is that the sequel goes deeper and forms the side characters a little more. I want more meat on the bones and a little more wit wouldn’t go amiss. I debated the final score but went for the higher number because it was an exciting ride and left me wanting more.
Published by Doubleday. This book was kindly sent by the publisher for review.