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Cowl
Neal Asher
Tor, 320 pages

Cowl
Neal Asher
Neal Asher was born in 1961 in Billericay in Essex. He started writing SF and fantasy at 16 after what he terms an "overdose" of E.C. Tubb books. After leaving school, he worked for a steel furniture maker, then operated a milling machine and began writing again. Thereafter, he decided to go back to school and finally graduated. He continued to write, having his work published in a number of magazines and producing a short story collection called Runcible Tales from Piper's Ash. With the publication of Gridlinked and The Skinner, he's working on The Line of Polity, to follow the year after.

Neal Asher Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Neal Asher
SF Site Review: The Skinner
SF Site Interview: Neal Asher
SF Site Review: Gridlinked

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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The past, revisited. Cowl is a dark, brooding time-travel novel, full of graphic violence and characters willing to go to extremes for what they believe in. There is a war going on, a war fought through shifting time-lines and more-or-less probable versions of reality. The stakes are the future, and past of humanity. The problem is trying to figure out who, if anyone, is telling the truth.

The truth, and basic survival, are pursued mostly by two characters; Tack, a soldier who gets caught up in the intrigues of the Helliothane Dominion, and Polly, a street-girl who finds herself attached to a tor, a device that is dragging her backwards in time. All tors lead to Cowl, a creation of experimental bio-engineering who seems determined to seize control of time before any of the events that lead to the development of human life can occur.

Cowl's quick pace and violent, sudden action make it compelling reading, and knowing references to time travel stories of the past along with creative use of language -- Neal Asher seems especially fond of Lewis Carroll -- give the novel some creative depth. The book's major weakness lies in its characterization.

With a couple of exceptions, the characters in Cowl are shown to us only in terms of their goals and ideas. Whichever side of the war they are on, we know them mainly as representatives of their ideology, not as individuals. This includes Cowl and his main opponents; they seem at times to exist only because the story requires some individual representations of the opposing forces.

The exceptions to this are Tack and Polly, who perhaps because they are stolen from a time close to our own and are fighting for themselves, not for a reality-changing cause, come off as more emotionally real and comprehensible than the crusading opponents who attempt to use them. They are the saving grace for a novel that otherwise would be the literary equivalent of a block-buster movie that is all action and no heart.

Cowl is a step above that, but there's no doubt that with the author's imagination and writing talent, it could have been even better. While Cowl is quite satisfying simply as an adventure story, Asher's ambition and obvious knowledge of the field suggest that with a little more time for character-development and exploring individual motivations, Cowl could have set new standards for the time-travel novel, instead of settling for being an entertaining up-date of a classic tradition.

Copyright © 2005 by Greg L. Johnson

A transporter accident once conveyed reviewer Greg L. Johnson to a strange alternate reality where faster-than-light travel, nanotech, artificial intelligences, bio-engineering and time travel all existed but no one had ever heard of science fiction. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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