THE ECHO by James Smythe

THE ECHO - James Smythe THE ECHO

James Smythe (james-smythe.com)

HarperVoyager (harpervoyagerbooks.com)

£16.99

Twenty-three years after the mysterious disappearance of the Ishiguro, man once again looks to the heavens, launching a new mission to examine the anomaly into which the earlier ship disappeared. This time the mission is led by twin brothers, Tomas and Mirakel Hyvönen, and their strict approach to science will ensure that, this time, they will be better prepared for what they encounter in space: a better-designed and supplied ship (no big red start/stop button here); a crew chosen for their skills rather than their camera-friendliness; and a plan, a schedule for researching the anomaly that will ensure maximum results in the time they have available to them. Mira will go into space with the rest of the crew, while Tomas will run things from the ground. As the Lära approaches the anomaly, the brothers’ plan changes when they spot what can only be the Ishiguro, still alive and moving all these years later. As they approach to investigate, disaster strikes and it soon looks like Mira and his crew may never return home.

The Explorer, the first book in James Smythe’s Anomaly Quartet, was one of my favourite books of 2013. In The Echo, Smythe takes us farther into the future, and sends us hurtling through space once again, towards the strange presence that we first encountered in the previous novel. This time we find ourselves in the head of Mira – Mirakel – Hyvönen, one of the brains behind the mission. When we meet him, our first thought is that he is a cold and thoroughly unlikeable protagonist, but we do find ourselves warming to him – however slightly – as the story progresses. Mira and his brother Tomas – a man we never meet, though he is present throughout, a voice on the end of the radio, Ground Control to Mira’s Major Tom – are a strange pair, geniuses beyond a doubt, but closed off from the rest of the world, inseparable – until now – and so like-minded as to almost be two halves of the same person. This relationship, this close sibling connection, is one of the key driving factors of the book, and the one that ultimately forces the novel to its logical climax.

While Smythe uses this novel to re-examine some of the themes he has already touched upon in The Explorer – the effect of humans living in each others’ pockets for protracted periods of time; the loneliness of space and what it does to the victim – there is also new ground. Here, the mission is a consequence of humanity’s compulsion to ask questions, and their need to have answers. It’s about the purity of science, and the gulf of difference between theory and practice. It is about family and, depending on what you take from what you read, the fact that, for everyone, blood is not necessarily always thicker than water. Mira finds himself a member of the crew on the ship despite the fact that he has always believed that his brother would be the one to travel while he stayed firmly on the ground. As the story progresses and things inevitably start to go wrong, we begin to see that Tomas and Mira are not as similar as Mira might have led us to believe and, that, as obnoxious and arrogant as Mira is, he may actually be the more human of the pair, the less sociopathic. He finds himself surrounded by good people, all highly-skilled professionals who respect him for what he is, despite the fact that he has trouble adapting to the necessities of space travel. Each of these characters is fully fleshed out, entirely realised, so that we get a sense that, for the initial part of the journey at least, Mira is far from alone, caught in an often claustrophobic environment which rarely – if ever – provides the opportunity for privacy.

We have already seen the effects of the anomaly, but this revisit allows us, through Mira and his crew, to examine it in more detail, to see if we can understand anything else about it. It is, without spoiling the novel too much, a cruel beast that will wear on the crew and the reader both. It’s testament to Smythe’s skill as a writer that he can draw the reader so firmly into this world, and make us suffer along with the novel’s characters. What we find at the anomaly is a thoroughly depressing scenario that could, I suspect, have the power to turn some readers off. For me, it’s a masterstroke, a perfectly-developed plot device that allows The Echo to play out to a logical – and thoroughly unpleasant, I should warn you – conclusion, and also sets the expectations for the final two books in the Quartet. Even with the reappearance of the Ishiguro, it’s impossible to predict where the story is going and when all is revealed, it comes as a shocking surprise to both crew members and readers alike.

Like The Explorer, The Echo features a relatively small cast of characters: Mira and his five colleagues provide companionship as we join them aboard the Lära while brother Tomas and, occasionally, Simpson, provide vocal support from the Earth. What begins as a joint effort to explore the unknown reaches of space soon devolves into a battle of wits between these two men, and it quickly becomes obvious which is the more devious mind. The climax, the final fifty pages or so of the novel, are perfectly plotted, brilliantly paced and, despite knowing what we know, still come as a massive surprise. At the end, we are left none the wiser, despite catching a glimpse of what lies within, instead left in awe of what this young writer has achieved.

The perfect follow-up to one of last year’s finest works of fiction, The Echo may not work well as a standalone novel, but will be perfect for anyone who enjoyed the first book in the series. Fully-realised characters, well-crafted sets and, once more, a cinematic vision, will keep the reader turning the pages long into the night. Part hard science fiction, part literary thriller, James Smythe manages to put a fresh new twist on what has already gone before, rather than, as the book’s title might suggest, producing an echo of its predecessor. Think Clarke’s 2010, only better, and you start to come close to what to expect. Already one of my books of 2014, this is one not to be missed.

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