The Echo by James Smythe
When I read The Explorer last year, Smythe’s novel of a failed deep space mission, I had no idea he planned a sequel, let alone making it part of a quartet. I disengaged my reality check and went along for the claustrophobic ride with the mis-matched crew who were mysteriously picked off one by one, leaving just Cormac, a journalist. In the second part of that book, it got seriously weird but fascinating, and I loved it so much I got my book group to read it, (shame they didn’t concur really.)
I have, however, been looking forward to reading the sequel, The Echo, for months now and I pre-ordered it before Christmas so I could legitimately read it when it was published in January during the months of the TBR Dare I’m taking part in.
It’s twenty-three years after the Ishiguro and its crew went missing in deep space. A new mission is being mounted to go and explore ‘the anomaly’, an area of black nothingness into which it is assumed the Ishiguro went. The mission is directed by identical twin brothers Tomas and Mirakel Hyvonen. They’ve spent years developing the science to make the new ship, the Lära – named after their mother, more efficient, faster, failsafe – everything has been tested. Mirakel describes their motivation to try again …
Everything was to be different to the way that they did it last time. … They set us back decades, I believe. When they disappeared, ever to be heard from again – as if space is a fairy story, something less than tangible – all funding went. Private investors, the life-line to the modern scientist, disappeared. Everything they did was wrong. I can pick holes. They launched from Earth, even though it made no sense, even back then. They spent money on automated systems because they believed they would add efficiency. … They spent billions developing ridiculous gravity systems, … They took a journalist with them, because they spun their mission into something commercial, something outside science. … What did that cost them, that folly? They played everything badly, a product of moneymen rather than scientific design. It drove Tomas and myself insane. And when they went missing, the balloon deflated overnight. No more space travel. There is nothing new out there to find, and no glory to be garnered from dying in the cold expanse of space as they surely did. … Most of us – scientists – felt as if they let us down. That’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless. When Tomas and I decided that we would do this, we decided that we would do everything better. This – space, discovery – it deserved better.
One of the twins remains behind to run Mission Control, able to run all the ship’s systems from Earth. Tomas and Mira played a game to decide; Mira, our narrator doesn’t say whether he won or lost – but he will be the one to go into space. They launch from the International Space Station and everything starts off fine. Once awakened from sleep, the crew are all getting on with each other and are kept busy doing their jobs. The improved communications with Earth mean it’s almost as if Tomas is there with them. It’s almost humdrum.
Then they begin to approach ‘the anomaly’, and soon it’s a case of – what the…! Here we go again. If you take what happened to the Ishiguro’s crew and especially Cormac in the first novel, multiply it several-fold in tension, add the shock-factor of what happens and the echoes of what follows that – it kept me on the edge of my seat… until it began to become clear how there is only one way out, (I think!).
The author piles on the twists and turns as Mirakel struggles to get to grips with what is happening to them, and finds that the truth has been founded on lies that he is part of. The sibling rivalry leaps off the page, but it is mostly Tomas who has control, twisting the brotherly knife ever deeper by making Mira jealous. It is Mira’s developing relationship with the Russian doctor Inna that I found rather entrancing though, for she is a fascinating character, strong and passionate; the rest of the crew were of less interest – wearing metaphorical red shirts as you might imagine.
Smythe has certainly maintained or even bettered the quality of writing in this second volume, and by upping the drama The Echo is even more of a psychological thriller than The Explorer. By allowing us to bond with Mirakel, something that didn’t happen with Cormac, the ante was upped and there was less detachment. I enjoyed it even more – in the same way that the equally ‘edge of your seat’ Aliens was better than the art-house Alien as a thriller on the big screen, (certain memorable scenes excepted).
Knowing that this is a planned quartet of books, I’ll be fascinated to see where he takes us next. Surely the final part will see Earth taking on the Anomaly? But who will win? What will happen in between? Can it get any bleaker? I can’t wait. (9.5/10)
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