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I read this book without any preconceptions, apart from one vague description as 'good, read it' from my father. This was the perfect way to start, as my expectations were relatively low, and was immediately drawn into the story.
The story opens with our main character, Jack Randall, making his way with a group of frightened Spares in tow. We are not yet aware of why they are there, nor who he is, though we assume the spares are clones because of the blurb on the back. Very gradually, at times painfully gradually, the story reveals how he has reached this point. The story flashes back to times before, the two periods of time running as seperate sequences, parallel throughout the book. The effect is that as we read about Randall attempting to keep the spares safe in the present, at the same time we have the story of his life told in sequence - systematically revealing new revelations. It works very well as a set up, and keeps us guessing throughout.
Randall takes the Spares, that we assume are fugitives, to a safe place, and re-enters the world of New Richmond alone. The city is referred to as a 'grounded megamall', in his world gigantic flying shopping centres fill the sky, where people live and work in a shopping centre, only landing to refuel. This particular one has been broken for years, and has become a city in it's own right. We very quickly realise Randall must be notorious in the city, as he enters stealthily. He meets numerous characters who hint at his past, and he meets many who he'd rather not meet at all. The city seems to represent corruption at it's core, as soon as he enters Randall is sucked into the world he wants to leave behind. The city is a law unto itself and is the world which the story revolves around.
The story is a spiral into chaos - New Richmond being the catalyst - from the very beginning you get the feeling that the characters are teetering on the edge of despair, just waiting for events to turn for the worse. Yet there is a constant glimmer of hope, kept alive by Randall's dark humour and the occassional happy event. The book also spirals into a weird, dark underworld, that gets progressively more difficult to understand.
The thing I liked about this novel was it's exploration of the main character, who while reading I couldn't decide if I liked him, pitied him or wanted to laugh at him. His humour certainly made me chuckle out loud, I'm certain my work colleagues now think I'm as mad as a box of frogs. The exploration of other characters was interesting but not as detailed, inevitable with a novel in first person. I also really enjoyed the world that Marshall creates, very science fiction but with a frightening resonance to the current debate of cloning. The beauty of the novel is the unusual setting - a giant shopping centre - reminds us that it is still fiction, but the themes could easily be seen as prophetic. The horror of the cloning process and the genuine disgust I felt at the corruption in 'New Richmond', made reading all the more gripping.
The only reason I have given this novel 4 instead of 5 stars, is due to fact that for me it wasn't a 'couldn't put it down', I was hooked but not superglued. I've no idea why that is, down to personal preference I suppose. One explanation could be that the storyline gets very unusual, and I was expecting more of a 'free the oppressed' kind of novel. It isn't.
This book is one of the few novels that I felt a range of emotions with, and cared deeply about the characters, especially the spares. I would recommend this book to fantasy, science fiction and classic lovers alike, though it is not for the faint hearted. It does also depend on how much 'weirdness' you can tolerate, because it gets very, well, weird at the end.