Hive Monkey by Gareth L. Powell
Hive Monkey is the second book in Gareth L. Powell’s ACK ACK MACAQUE series, originally dubbed a trilogy but now, apparently, fated to be a quartet. The eponymous monkey, who likes cigars, rum and flying a refurbished WWII Spitfire, plays a large role in this book, gleefully wreaking mayhem on the bad guys. His sidekicks, Victoria Valois, journalist-turned-airship-captain, K8, plucky girl hacker, and Paul, a hologram, also have roles to play as they battle the colonized drones of an evil hive-mind.
It all gets very exciting, so I was baffled to start Chapter One with a boring, stereotypical character, William Cole. Cole is a meth-addled science fiction writer. He opens the book by standing on a wharf looking at scenery and mourning his dead wife (because of course he has one). Later, he takes a call from his agent and lies about the chapters he hasn’t turned in to the editor yet, because … oh, no! He really hasn’t written anything! Before I could swoon and clutch my pearls in shock, something blew up. It didn’t make William any more interesting though.
Cole is an unnecessary character, and as if he weren’t bad enough alone, soon we have two of him because a doppelgänger from an alternate dimension appears. The doppelgängers, along with the disturbingly calm, pleasant, white-clad members of the “Gestalt” cult, are major plot movers, and eventually Ack-Ack Macaque is flying under bridges, blowing roofs off of stately country homes, and generally having a good time.
Hive Monkey is about 380 pages long, and K8 gets kidnapped on page 160, which starts the action. This felt way too late in a book that, before then, relied mostly on flashy visuals like Victoria’s bald head and her gorgeous captain’s jacket, and exposition about the Williams. After the kidnap, though, the fighting gets serious. The concept of a hive mind where every individual node or person is instantaneously aware of everything in the hive is fascinating, and should make fighting them more of a tactical challenge than it is here (basically, “sneak up behind them so they don’t know what hit them” is the choice du jour).
When the action starts, the fight scenes are brisk and well-written. Once again, Powell uses the conceit of webpages to fill in exposition and foreshadow upcoming events (reference to the ship that started for Mars in the first book, for example). Emotional sequences tend to be limited to people thinking about their relationships, or mourning lost loved ones, or saying good-bye to loved ones again, since, because there are doppelgängers now, a spouse or partner can die over and over. I don’t consider this character development, and Ack-Ack’s lack of growth — although there is some — disappointed me in this outing. I wish William and his family had been dumped from the story, and that freed-up time spent on the monkey and his struggle with monkey/human impulses, emotions and needs. Ack-Ack Macaque does confront, symbolically and literally, a monkey version of the Road Not Taken, and that would have been interesting if the same thing hadn’t happened in the first book.
Still, Hive Monkey is entertaining. Powell mines the speculative fiction world heavily, tosses a myriad of tropes from sources as diverse as Star Trek: Next Generation, William Gibson, Richard K. Morgan and multiple Doctor Who episodes into a cocktail shaker, adds ice and a monkey, and pours out a fizzy concoction that is fun, even if it’s not completely satisfying.
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