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The Neutronium Alchemist by Peter F. Hamiliton

01/02/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

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The Neutronium Alchemist (Night Dawn's Trilogy book 2) by Peter F. Hamiliton. pub: Subterranean Press. 934 page signed limited small hardback. Price: $60.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-333-4.

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Peter F. Hamilton is a highly successful British Science Fiction author who has so far produced fifteen books, the majority of them very lengthy space operas. ‘The Neutronium Alchemist’ is the middle volume of his bestselling ‘Night’s Dawn’ trilogy. His fifth novel, it was originally published in 1997 and is now being re-issued in a limited edition hardback by specialist publishers Subterranean Press.

This edition is being published as 500 signed and numbered hardbacks ($60) and 26 signed leatherbound copies in a traycase ($250). It’s worth noting that Subterranean’s edition of the previous book in the trilogy, ‘The Reality Dysfunction’, was published a year ago and quickly sold out. So if you’re interested in this one, you may want to get in touch with them sooner rather than later. Publication date for ‘The Neutronium Alchemist’ was 31 December 2010 and at the time of writing (January 2011) copies were still available.

This review is based on the pre-publication proof of the book. This has the same impressive cover image that will be on the hardback and the text is nicely laid out and easy to read, which is pretty important with a book of this length. All in all, it looks to me like the hardback would be a nice thing to have on your bookshelf.

The action of the ‘Night’s Dawn’ trilogy is set in and around an advanced, spacefaring human civilisation in the 27th century. To briefly recap for those who haven’t come across this series before, in the first volume, ‘The Reality Dysfunction’, a wormhole was accidentally opened between our universe and a parallel void where the souls of the dead reside. After the first dead soul crossed the divide, entering into and possessing a living human on the colony planet of Lalonde, he was able to bring more of his compatriots across to possess other humans. Those ‘possessed’ gain super-human powers from their link to the void, enabling them to mould matter and energy by thought alone, making them almost invincible in a straight fight with ‘normal’ humans. Facing spirited but futile opposition, the possessed rapidly took over Lalonde, before heading off-planet to possess whichever other planets, asteroids and orbiting habitats they could reach. This first book in the trilogy ended with things looking distinctly dicey for humanity.

As ‘The Neutronium Alchemist’ opens, immediately after the end of ‘The Reality Dysfunction’, the war between humans and possessed is at an early stage, with most of humanity as yet unaware of the threat. This soon changes as those lucky enough to escape the early skirmishes return to the major planets and habitats of their kin and report what they’ve seen to the authorities and the general public.

Humanity, which is roughly split between the religious and genetically unenhanced ‘Adamists’ and the genetically engineered, atheist ‘Edenists’, accepts that war has been declared upon them and searches for ways to fight and defeat the possessed. In consequence, the centuries-old schism between Adamists and Edenists has to be put to one side, for the time being at least.

The principal conflict is, of course, between humanity and the possessed. However, Hamilton chooses to illustrate this battle in a number of different ways. So we see Al Capone recreating the ‘Organisation’ of his Chicago mobster days but then seeking a means of peaceful co-existence with humanity, once his side is strong enough that it can’t be easily destroyed. On the other hand, the thoroughly evil Quinn Dexter, who worships some kind of Anti-Christ, is simply out to convert everyone to his twisted cult, killing anyone who won’t accept his terms. Equally, some amongst humanity’s military and political classes are prepared for all-out war with the possessed, almost regardless of the consequences. Others, such as world-weary intelligence agent Ralph Hiltch, are more measured in their approach.

As if the conflict between the living and the recently dead is not enough, there is also the story of Dr. Alkad Mzu to figure in. Mzu’s home planet of Garissa was destroyed in a dispute over mineral rights some thirty years earlier and has spent those years developing the ultimate weapon of revenge, the Neutronium Alchemist of the title. She is now ready to use it on the planet that destroyed hers. Almost every intelligence service in existence is out to stop her but it falls to handsome yet flawed starship captain Joshua Calvert to make sure the Alchemist is not let loose or, worse yet, stolen by the possessed.

There is, of course, much more to the plot than this, not least because it has to set up the conflicts that form the backbone of ‘The Naked God’, the third and final volume in the trilogy. Hopefully though, the above should give some indication of just how involved the storyline is.

I have been meaning to read the ‘Night’s Dawn’ trilogy for some time, having previously been put off by the sheer length of each of the three books. I’m very glad that Subterranean Press’s re-issuing of ‘The Neutronium Alchemist’ has given me the opportunity to correct that mistake. The novel is a hugely enjoyable read. Although some have criticised Hamilton for padding out his plots with unnecessary material, I did not feel that criticism was valid here. He has a huge cast of characters but they all seemed to fulfil a clear role in the story. There are many sub-plots but, again, I didn’t feel that any of these were irrelevant or unnecessary. On the contrary, I found that they provided the story with depth and complexity.

One of the things I particularly like about the novel is the way that it forces the reader to acknowledge the validity of the motives of the possessed. What could easily have been written as a simplistic ‘us versus them’ zombie horror story instead shows us that, for the possessed, going back to the featureless vacuum after tasting the fruits of physical life once more is utterly unthinkable. That makes them, perversely, more ‘human’ and makes the conflicts between the possessed and the living that much more dramatic.

If I had to make one criticism of the book, it would be that the ‘baddies’ seem to be treated more leniently by the author than the ‘goodies’. Generally, when the humans get things wrong, they are horribly punished for it. The possessed, however, do not seem to make many mistakes or have many arguments between themselves. Given that they all come from different eras and cultures, I would have thought that it would be quite challenging, to say the least, to unify the possessed. This is, however, a relatively minor criticism of an otherwise excellent book.

‘The Neutronium Alchemist’ is a magnificent achievement. If you are even vaguely interested in space opera I would urge you to read it. Should you wish to do so in style, this Subterranean Press re-issue seems to me to be well worth investigating.

Patrick Mahon

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