How do you shake up the familiar “war that never ends” trope? James Barclay has one answer; add alien DNA with lizards to create genetically modified dragons; then fly those dragons into the battlefield burning your enemies to a smoking crisp. If that wasn’t enough, he also adds a variety of fun and interesting characters to boot.
Set over the burning South African desert, a 30-legged behemoth slowly marches through the sand; this is the Heart of Granite; a living, breathing reptilian aircraft carrier where hundreds of soldiers live inside. We follow Max Halloran, ace drake pilot and part of Inferno-X, an elite flight squad, fighting a war that won’t end. He has everything going for him; until he discovers that one of his co-pilots has started to suffer from The Fall. You see, drake pilots don’t just ride their dragons, they physically bond with them and open their minds to the drakes to allow better control. However, when they speak to the drakes, the drakes start speaking back, until their reptilian mind overpowers their pilots and drives them mad, or they die in horrific and gruesome ways.
When Max’s friend starts showing the early signs of The Fall, he is pushed to question everything he knows to discover a cure. However, it is in this web of conspiracy and government lies where Heart of Granite suffers slightly.
Whilst the conspiracy plot is engaging and tense, the “lie” that Max and his team are told to placate them into testing experimental tech, revolves entirely around the absence of one scientist. The crux of this lie falls apart further in the novel’s central antagonist, who flips from terrifying and composed to snivelling and cowardly the moment our heroes make any advances towards the truth. His desperation to save his own skin undercuts the fear and intimidation the reader should feel whenever he is on the page.
The second negative I must mention is in the enemy MAF drake pilots. They essentially exist to beat Inferno X and then lose in the next encounter. They feel more like a plot device rather than an entity to be feared, one our heroes have been engaged in a stand-still war with. Learning about their battle tactics or giving them a little more depth beyond “they are like us but evil” would have helped sell them as being more than generic faceless grunts.
This problem is somewhat prominent in Max’s squadron, who feel faceless, much like the enemies they fight in their drakes. When it came to the titular final battle, I couldn’t help shrugging my shoulders in disinterest as their names dropped off the page, much like their drakes falling from the sky.
However, Barclay does write some excellent characters. Max is, for the most part, likeable. He’s roguish and charming and doesn’t listen to the chain of command (a trait which comes to bite him in the ass a few times) and these traits sell him as a very real, three-dimensional character. Character and dialogue are some of the strongest points in the novel. The dialogue is witty and invokes the sense that these characters are part of a family and care for each other.
Barclay has woven character into his world building as well. At the start of every chapter, there are journal entries, scientific reports, events; small paragraphs about the world, the war, the alien technology used to create the drakes, or little excerpts from characters both on the battlefield and back home. These almost insignificant details help make the world beyond the Behemoth feel alive and lived in, that there are people back at home that our characters are fighting for. It also gives us clues about the wider mysteries of the alien technology that would otherwise come off as clunky in dialogue between two pilots.
What James Barclay excels at the most is the aerial dogfights. The heart-pounding, rush of adrenaline that you feel as Max and his other pilots calculate each manoeuvre and kill through a swarm of enemy fire and claws. Each suspenseful moment the characters are in the air, your eyes are glued to the page. Barclay is a master of atmosphere.
Overall, Heart of Granite is a solid sci-fi action novel with a likeable protagonist and side characters that tackles a troubling story about addiction and the horrors of war underneath the heart-pounding drake flying action. With a sequel on its way, this is one you should give a read.
Written on 9th October 2018 by Sam.
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