The Rider, by Austin Cunningham
“Taking place across the utterly fantastical locales of the universe as seen through the eyes of several characters, The Rider is a new science fiction epic wherein humanity finds itself in the throes of a centuries-long war against an utterly inscrutable alien opponent. In a bold gambit to end the battle once and for all, the world’s top minds gather to enact the impossible: the creation of a perfect interstellar pilot, otherwise known as a rider. But what results is as shocking as it is profound, and this startling series of events all takes place against the backdrop of war and discovery, of person and triumph and tragedy, of memories and times of trial and joy. And so, from the titanic battle to the introspective struggle of the individual, The Rider carries forth all this and more, for, in the grandest tradition of true science fiction, the novel raises a number of philosophical and religious questions. After all, it is said that the universe is as wonderful as it is mysterious, and so see it all first hand with one of the finest novels written in years: The Rider.
The Rider. Well where do I start. It was certainly ambitious and I can say in places enjoyable, but I did find it hard work. That being said I was hooked enough to want to see the end, but this may have been strongly influenced by my doggedness to finish what I had started.
I should clarify that I got this through Goodreads a while back now as an early review copy, and I have an inkling that since I read it the author might have pulled the book to rework it. If so good on him, as I think there is an awful lot of good stuff there to work with and it could be truly great if presented in the right way.
Objectively it should have been a breathtaking piece of hard sci-fi spanning a vast universe, tackling issues of humanity, prejudice and man’s penchant for total war and blind vengeance. The difficulty though, as ever, is that the devil is in the detail, and in this instance the Devil was hanging around a lot. It was like that scene in Matrix Revolutions where Keanu is surrounded by Agent Smiths as far as the eye can see. There was just too much detail and dense text in this tale, and in my opinion it weighed down the story and the reader. I found to my shame that after about half way I was skipping over swathes of text that just seemed to go on and on, way too long, about a perception of something, or a description of another. It was clear that the author was not only intelligent but also had great vision, and he had endeavoured to set this out in loving detail. Sadly it had the unfortunate effect of bringing the narrative too often to a crashing halt, both at key moments and indeed not so key moments. Now of course detail is not a bad thing, and many of the truly great sci-fi authors recognised for the mastery of their art weave incredibly intricate and detailed worlds and set pieces, and the Rider is clearly modelled on such work. However, for me, it just tried too hard, and suffered for it.
That being said, overall I did find the writing style and quality to be good. There were occasional errors in the proof reading that started to irk after a while but I put that down to the early release character of the file.
The story was certainly an interesting one and the second act characters were well drawn. I think it was only when we turned our main focus to the character Ajax, which then did not waver for the rest of the story, that the book almost lost me – and we’re talking just by my fingertips here.
I’d give it two and a half stars as I did come away having enjoyed the idea of it, and of course others may disagree entirely with my views on the breadth and span of the book. Frankly I think it could be cut down by up to a third and still keep all of its deep, rich tone and grand ambition whilst making it far easier to read and enjoy.
On this occasion, whilst a very good effort, I think it was disappointingly a bridge too far, with the execution leading to the book almost suffocating under its own weight.