Great North Road

  • Peter F. Hamilton
  • Del Rey
  • 948 pp.

This new thriller with the suspense of a serial-killer investigation is set in a futuristic, intergalactic world.

Great North Road is a detective story wrapped in a science fiction space opera. Author Peter Hamilton gives readers insights as close as the morning light on a beloved’s skin and as far away as aliens pouring through a space-time rupture and bombing an entire world. From beginning to end, Great North Road delivers one punchy plot twist after another. 

Detective Sidney Hurst is just off of suspension from the police force in Newcastle, England, an aging city that also holds a trans-spatial gateway to the planet, St. Libra. Sid and his partner are the first investigators on scene at a murder. Discovering a body is nothing new in this gritty town that “oozed out its own thick miasma of light pollution” on a planet where the less ambitious live. The more enterprising have already left Earth to seek their fortunes in the stars. 

The murder Sid investigates is different from any he has dealt with before. The deceased is a North clone, part of the sprawling multi-generational family that, through a network of businesses, has cornered markets in fuel provision, interstellar travel, and regenerative technology. The future of the human race is built on the empire that the North clones created. When one of the North clones is murdered, humans throughout the settled planets take an interest. Politicians and the Human Defense Alliance angle for investigation outcomes that suit their own needs. Sid is one of the few without the last name “North” who cares about finding the real killer. He knows he has been put at the head of the investigation because no one expects him to solve the murder. To make matters worse, the North clone was killed with a weapon that suggests the murderer is the same alien whose presence Earth officials have been trying for 20 years to hide from the population at large. 

This isn’t the first time a North clone died in a high-profile murder. Twenty years before, Angela Tramelo was the only survivor of an attack at Bartram North’s mansion. Bartram North, one of the original clones, and his entire pleasure household were killed, all except for Angela. Publicly, the authorities blamed her for the murders. In private, they subjected her to mind-damaging probes. Politicians and the Human Defense Alliance knew she didn’t kill anyone at the North mansion, but she was made the scapegoat for a murder that appeared to have a hidden alien perpetrator. 

When the wielder of the unique alien weapon strikes in Newcastle, the Human Defense Alliance turns to Angela with a promise of exoneration if she will help them find and defeat the killer. As a result, Great North Road is Angela’s story as much as Sid’s. Angela has her own secrets and is more than a little angry over her past treatment. Think Helen Ripley in Alien but without all the soft edges. The fact that Angela is a “one-in-ten” — a person who ages only one year for every 10 that pass — is just the iceberg tip of Angela’s subsurface secrets. Hamilton dishes out her past in flashbacks over the course of the novel. The reader follows Angela down a surprising path from her childhood to Bartram North’s mansion on the night when everyone else was killed. Angela can be anything she wants to be, but being alive is what she’s best at.

Soon, Angela is embedded with the Human Defense Alliance’s expedition to find the killer. “St. Libra’s sky was a clean deep turquoise, and somehow seemed to be a whole lot higher than Earth’s. … Slicing right across the northern sky like some kind of magical veil was the planet’s phenomenal ring system.” Before long, members of Angela’s expedition begin to die, killed in some cases with the same alien weapon that slew Bartram North’s household and the North clone whose death Sid is investigating.

On St. Libra, a daughter of the North family oversees the agriculture that supplies Earth with bioil fuel cultivated from algaepaddies covering the planet. Wandering St. Libran preacher and mystic Zebediah North claims, “There are no monsters on St. Libra. … Only the evil that humans have brought with them.” Zebediah North’s environmental message pesters the reader’s conscience like a hungry gnat that knows winter is coming. Humans are damaging St. Libra with giant algaepaddies fueling human consumption. The author toys with this plot line and only once or twice comes close to moralizing about a modern dilemma in a future setting. Great North Road layers on other plot lines, but for the most part, Hamilton focuses on Sid’s efforts to solve the murder on Earth and Angela’s quest to stop more murders from happening around her. 

The plot lines are tight. The writing is uncomplicated but rich. Hamilton could have told the story in fewer words, but the result wouldn’t have been as interesting. His broad strokes let the reader fill in the larger world, and, even in such a long book, he puts only the most important details under the microscope. The reader feels Newcastle in the dead of winter just as powerfully as she feels the sense of loss that comes with the knowledge that she will never be a one-in-ten. Hamilton sets out to tell a story on many levels — emotional, futuristic, fantastic, and personal. He succeeds on every count. 

Andrea M. Pawley lives and writes in Washington D.C., her favorite city in the whole world. 

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