In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’. The trouble is Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence.
A century later, in a world where France and Great Britain merged in the late 1950s and nuclear-powered Zeppelins circle the globe, ex-journalist Victoria Valois finds herself drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the man who butchered her husband and stole her electronic soul. In Paris, after taking part in an illegal break-in at a research facility, the heir to the British throne goes on the run. And all the while, the doomsday clock ticks closer to Armageddon…
Ack-Ack Macaque is everything the blurb states it will be, and so much more. From a clever mix of time periods, secret plots, madcap revenge missions and a good look at the future of humanity, Gareth Powell has built a quick-witted, punchy tale of intrigue and adventure. In which the title character is a monkey. Not many people could pull that off.
The book is split into three storylines which later merge, interspersed with news bulletins and mock-blog posts, to allow the reader to keep up with the happenings of the wider world in which the story is set. As a lot of the action happens in remote locations, namely aboard the Zeppelin Tereshkova, it is a neat trick in world building, and in advancing the plot.
The first storyline we encounter is that of Victoria Valois, ex-journalist, divorcee and gelware experiment, arriving at the scene of her ex-husband’s murder in the year 2059. It is bad enough that he has literally had his head bashed in, but in this world of the future, people are fitted with soul-catchers, little devices that digitally record thoughts and memories. Paul’s soul-catcher is missing, and the fact he worked for Celeste Technologies, a company run by Duchess Alyssa Celestine, currently running the monarchy following a grenade attack on her husband, sends Victoria off on a path most people wouldn’t dare tread, in search of the truth.
The second storyline we come across is that of the titular Ack-Ack Macaque, in 1940. He is Spitfire pilot extraordinaire – so much so that he always comes back alive, no matter how much danger he has flown into. This has turned him cynical, incredibly cynical, and has caused him to question his own existence, and the purpose he has in the world. The truth will throw him forward into the future, into a world he doesn’t quite understand, but when revenge is on offer, Ack-Ack will be able to do what he does best : “hurt people and blow shit up”.
The final storyline we follow is that of Prince Merovech, university student, heir to the throne, and desperate to impress the girl from his course that he has taken a shine to. So much so that he agrees to join in an illegal break-in at Celeste Technologies, which uncovers much greater truths than he could ever imagine. Armed with this new knowledge, Merovech sets out to stop an event which could well sever the union between Great Britain and France, all the while attempting to maintain a low profile until the time is right.
The stories Powell creates, and the seamless way in which he weaves them together, make this an incredibly easy read. Several times I found myself pausing, but usually only to catch my breath from laughing at some of Ack-Ack’s outbursts. There is an incredible amount of intelligent wit in this work, and it will keep the reader gripped throughout. It is an alternative future, yes, but one described in a way that makes it feel real, as though it is going to happen, and we just haven’t realised yet. This makes it the perfect backdrop to the action, as it doesn’t interfere with the story, merely grants it scenery to be played against.
Powell’s biggest triumph is his characters. From hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Ack-Ack, to the sensitive, dedicated Victoria, through to confused, idealistic Merovech, he makes us feel for each and every one of them. This is in part why I think this novel, and particularly its conclusion, is such a success. No one feels surplus, everyone has a purpose, which is an incredibly tricky problem to solve.
I would be remiss to talk about this novel and not mention the cover. It is stunning; a real pleasure just to spend a few minutes looking at when you pick up the book, and if it doesn’t attract its share of readers, I will be shocked. Who wouldn’t want to read a book featuring a gun-toting, cigar-smoking monkey?
I discovered Gareth Powell’s work towards the end of last year, and was drawn in immediately by his clever prose, neat plotting and fantastic ideas, which meant Ack-Ack Macaque immediately went to the top of my anticipated books of 2013 list. Now that it’s here, so early in the year, I feel it will be very hard to shift from high on my list of best books of the year.
Quick-witted, sharp and punchy prose, intriguing plotting and a voice that grabs the reader and forces them to pay attention makes this a must-read for lovers of all kinds of fantasy - I genuinely believe there are aspects to love for everyone in this novel.
The sequel to Ack-Ack Macaque, Hive Monkey, is due for release by Solaris in 2014. Gareth L. Powell’s other work includes The Recollection, also from Solaris, Silversands, from Pendragon Press, and The Last Reef, from Elastic Press.