This was my first Ian McDonald book, and I’m afraid to read any more because I don’t think they can top this one.
At the time it was written (1997) it was set in the future (2004) but now it’s a sort of AU/AltHist. What if aliens landed just as the Troubles in Northern Ireland were coming to an end, and a large number settled in that area? The political future McDonald projects is different from the one that came to pass (joint sovereignty rather than power-sharing, and on a more minor note, the PSNI are instead the much more mockable NIPS). So, obviously, is the arrival of aliens.
Andy Gillespie, former getaway driver for Loyalist paramilitary hits, gets out of jail thoroughly disillusioned with sectarian politics, and fluent, due to a series of traumatic circumstances, in the aliens’ language. He starts a new life as a mediator between aliens and humans, but due to his past, when an alien family he works with is murdered, he’s the prime suspect. So he sets out to find the real murderer, teaming up with an alien lawyer or “knight-advocate” who’s investigating a disappearance, and followed by Roisin Dunbar, a Catholic cop whose marriage is under strain.
Along the way he re-encounters a prison friend of his, who is trying to assimilate to the alien culture and become one of them. The process is compared to sex reassignment, and the book as a whole is in dialogue with the trans serial killer trope. The book has a lot to say about the dark side of assimiation– as the aliens encounter human culture, they pick up the link between sex and violence, a link previously foreign to their culture. By contrast, when Andy Gillespie plans to become a knight-advocate himself, it’s presented as positive that he’s not doing this to feel a sense of belonging in the alien culture.
The alien culture is well-developed and so was Gillespie’s character. I don’t read a lot of books by men or with male protagonists, so this was a nice change for me- a male hero and former “tough guy” whose emotional journey is depicted with nuance. The climax was incredibly intense and full of dread, but the denouement/final chapter was a bit confusing and abrupt. Both Roisin and the alien lawyer’s threads are dropped without much resolution, which makes me disagree with how Jo Walton’s post presents them as equal protagonists with Andy Gillespie (who gets more resolution). I should say, however, that Jo Walton’s review inspired me to read this, and that it is every bit as good as she says it is. Read it.