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After years of writing for television and radio, Philip Palmer has switched to novel writing and has landed himself in the science fiction genre for his debut release, "Debatable Space". Being such a popular genre, it's difficult to find anything new to say, so to stand out any new writer has to have something different. Palmer has managed that, but only in part.
Firstly, he manages to surprise by making a hero out of a space pirate. This isn't a unique idea, as it's something that Ben Bova has done and the central character in Piers Anthony's "Bio of a Space Tyrant" series started off as a space pirate. But whereas Anthony's pirate turned to politics, Palmer's remains a pirate throughout.
It's a fun idea, following Flanagan as he prepares to kidnap Lena, the daughter of the Cheo, who just happens to be the ruler of the galaxy. His plan is to ransom her for lots of money, using the secrets he knows about Lena to persuade the Cheo to pay. Unfortunately, the Cheo has other plans and so we follow Lena, Flanagan and his crew as they try to come up with and pull off a Plan B.
The other surprise we get from Palmer is in the way he tells the story. He uses the first person and tells the story from the point of view of the central characters. The story is mostly told from Lena and Flanagan's perspective, but all of the crew get their turn. Again, this isn't an entirely unique idea, but it is a technique more commonly associated with chick- or bloke-lit than with science fiction.
As unusual as it is, though, it's only an effective technique when things are happening and you get to see it all from the different viewpoints. When there is less action going on, Palmer has the characters, especially Lena, going through their back story. This is where he stops being quite so original, although there are still some nice touches.
The major problem he has given himself that Lena has lived a very long time and so there needs to be a huge amount of back story for her. Rather than fill this in by going into detail or giving her years of doing the same thing, Palmer has her skip over lots of different events which can be difficult to keep in the right order, given that her story is told in parts and isn't entirely chronological. There are a couple of parts which are intriguing and I would have liked more detail on, but all too often Palmer's vision of the future seems familiar from other science fiction writers and it feels as if he had too many ideas and insisted on getting them all in rather than going into more detail with some of them.
Palmer is a decent writer and parts of the book, particularly when the pirates are in action, are an enjoyable read and keep moving along pretty quickly. Flanagan has a devious mind, which allows for some fiendish plans and twists that I didn't see coming, but which I thoroughly enjoyed. Sadly, the back story is unable to keep up the same pace, which does make "Debatable Space" a slightly patchy experience.
This really is the essence of the novel; when Palmer is good he can be very good, with some wonderful ideas taking their place in a well plotted and exciting adventure story. But when he's not writing that, he seems to either have too many ideas falling over each other and getting in the way of the story until they are all on the page. Had Palmer concentrated on the action, this would have been a much shorter, but much more entertaining book. As it is, there is room for improvement, but the basics are certainly there and make Philip Palmer a writer worth watching out for.
I would tend to recommend this book as one to borrow rather than to buy, as whilst it's a decent read, it is one you're only likely to read the once, thanks to a slight lack of depth, even allowing for the novelty of some of the ideas. A purchase isn't to be encouraged by the price of the book to buy new, which is upwards of the £7.00 I have seen on Amazon. Second hand copies are a better buy from £1.99 at the Amazon Marketplace or £2.00 on eBay, but as it's a fairly large book, postage prices need to be watched.
I did, however, see the book as part of a £ for 2 offer in Waterstones within about 2 weeks of publication, so some of the offline book stores may have it at a price which makes it worth a go. If it can be found cheaply enough, it is worth a go, as there is much here to be enjoyed, just not quite £7.00 worth.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Flanagan (who is, for want of a better word, a pirate) has a plan. It seems relatively simple: kidnap Lena, the Cheo's daughter, demand a vast ransom for her safe return, sit back and wait. Only the Cheo, despotic ruler of the known universe, isn't playing ball. Flanagan and his crew have seen this before, of course, but since they've learned a few tricks from the bad old days (being particularly bad if you happen to have been one of the myriad sons or daughters the Cheo let die rather than give in to blackmail) and since they know something about Lena that should make the plan foolproof, the Cheo's defiance is a major setback. It is a situation that calls for extreme measures. Luckily, Flanagan has considerable experience in this area...