This book caught my eye as it won The 2013 Terry Pratchett Prize, complete with a complimentary comment on the back cover by the great man, himself. So I was expecting something remarkable by this young writer.
Situated deep in the Sahara Desert, New Cairo is a city built on technology -- from the huge, life-giving solar panels that keep it functioning in a radically changed, resource-scarce world, to the artificial implants that seem to have resolved all of mankind's medical problems. But New Cairo is also a divided city -- a vast metropolis dominated by a handful of omnipotent corporate dynasties. And when a powerful new computer virus begins to spread through the poorer districts, shutting down the implants that enable so many to survive, the city begins to turn on itself -- to slide into the anarchy of violent class struggle. Hiding out in the chaos is Zola Ulora, a gifted hacker and fugitive from justice. Her fervent hope is that she can earn her life back by tracing the virus and destroying it before it destroys the city. Or before the city destroys itself...
It takes a great deal of technical skill to be able to immediately pull a reader into a technically complex world with a suitably layered, sympathetic character that allows your reader to fully bond with her. While the world was interesting, the pace was initially silted up by too many chunks of information on how it all worked. However, I persevered because the world was well constructed and entirely plausible, while
Maskill endeavored to give a fully nuanced take on the situation unfolding.
As it all started kicking off, the pace picked up and provided plenty of unexpected twists I really didn't see coming, although the themes are very familiar to science fiction fans. Maskill can certainly provide a plot with plenty going on. While I initially was concerned that the outcome was all too predictable, he was at pains to provide a rounded view of the struggle threatening to rip New Cairo apart. Although I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in Zola's viewpoint. There was a reasonably large cast in a relatively short story and Maskill hasn't yet acquired the knack of immediately writing a solid bonding moment with the reader and viewpoint character. The consequence was that I wasn't as heavily invested in the story as I would have liked.
I'm conscious that I have sounded very critical -- but this is by no means a bad book. The world certainly works and because of Maskill's approach, there is an attempt to look at the crisis from both sides -- this near future scenario is probably the hardest form of science fiction to write well and there is plenty in it for fans of the genre to enjoy. What this first book has demonstrated is Maskill's undoubted talent. I look forward to following his writing career -- he is certainly One To Watch.