Three hundred years ago, a strange and seemingly invincible alien ship visited the Sakhran Empire. Exactly what happened is unclear, because the events were only recorded in the Book of Srahr, a text only Sakhrans are allowed to read. After the ship left, the Sakhran Empire went into a slow but irreversible decline.
Three centuries later, the Sakhrans have been assimilated into the larger interstellar empire known as the Commonwealth, when suddenly the strange, immensely powerful ship returns. The Commonwealth dispatches an Outsider, one of only nine in its ultimate class of warships, to stop this inscrutable enemy.
John Love’s stunning debut novel Faith is the story of this confrontation.
The first two sections of Faith introduce two false protagonists in extreme, dangerous situations. In the hands of a lesser writer these chapters could have led to empty action scenes devoid of human interest, but John Love has the knack of making a character interesting and real in a paragraph or two. At the same time, these sections help the fictional universe take shape and set the stage for the real meat of the novel. Still, it’s surprising when those characters disappear from view for the rest of the novel in favor of Aaron Foord, Faith’s real main character.
Foord is the captain of the Charles Manson, the Outsider-class ship that will try to prevent the Commonwealth from going the way of the Sakhran Empire. Outsiders are the ultimate warships: sleek, sturdy, and so jam-packed with weapons and drives that their crews barely fit and end up living inside them like animals in burrows. Appropriately, the crews are outsiders themselves: sociopaths, psychopaths and various other miscreants who are immensely gifted but were, to put it mildly, not recruited for their people skills. Outsiders “were conceived in back alleys, built and launched in secret, and commissioned without ceremony.”
Faith really gets going once we’re on board the Charles Manson with Foord and his crew. As John Love describes it in his typically sparse, eloquent prose, the Charles Manson is “a ship crewed by people who had lost, or never had, the motives of people.” Throughout the confrontation with the enemy ship, we get to know each of the four humans and two aliens on the bridge in intimate detail. At one point or another, we learn what brought each of them to this point. It’s amazing that John Love manages to weave all of these narratives into what’s essentially one long battle scene in such a smooth way. The novel wouldn’t have been the same without them, because the twisted interactions between these very twisted characters are what give Faith its dark, delicious edge.
Early on in the novel, the enemy ship is described as the “bastard child of Moby Dick and Kafka: invincible and strange.” The Moby Dick reference works on several levels, which I won’t bore you with here, but the most obvious one is the obsessive way Foord/Ahab hunts his opponent up and down the solar system. The majority of this novel describes the spectacular battle between the two ships in a way that may pose danger to your fingernails (if you’re a biter) or your cardiovascular system (depending on your blood pressure). It’s a thrilling knock-down, drag-out duel that gradually takes on new layers of meaning until the final, shocking revelation.
(Which reminds me of a word of warning I would like to add to this review. It’s entirely possible that I’m the only reader who does this, but when I start a new novel I typically check towards the end of the book to see what the final chapter heading is. I do this because I want to know whether I’m dealing with a book consisting of, say, 40 little chapters or 10 big ones. It’s just something I like to know from the start. In either case, whether you tend to do this or not, don’t do it in this case, because the final chapter in this novel is the only one with a subtitle, and that subtitle is a spoiler that will severely affect how you read the rest of the novel. This is obviously not meant as a criticism of Faith or John Love in any way, simply a word of warning in case I’m not the only person who likes to know how many chapters a book has. Trust me: don’t peek.)
Faith is at times an almost unpleasantly intense, claustrophobic book to read. The crew of the Charles Manson are, for most of the story, confined to the cramped bridge of their ship. There’s no getting away from their tics, the nasty edges of their minds, the passive-aggressive (or sometimes just plain aggressive) verbal sparring they consider pleasant conversation. If you only enjoy novels with likable characters, Faith is not for you. John Love also has a penchant for sharp but unpleasant metaphors and similes. He often writes long, elegant sentences and then abruptly drops a shocking twist or a bomb of a revelation in the very last sub-clause. He uses bodily functions or sexual acts in surprising and uncomfortable ways, e.g. when he compares the relentless back-and-forth dynamic of a space battle to masturbation. In a nutshell: it’s not always pretty.
In either case, Faith is a science fiction debut of the highest order. It has fascinating, well-rounded characters who will remain with you for a long time. It has gorgeous, understated prose. It is chock-full of tension, making it a compulsive page-turner. It has an intriguing fictional universe which, I hope, will host more novels in the future. It’s got one of the highest signal-to-noise ratios I’ve encountered in a long time, which, if you think about it, is really something, given that the vast majority of it describes one long, protracted battle. Faith is a novel I maybe would have expected from the mind of Iain M. Banks — and if that isn’t a compliment for an SF debut, I don’t know what is. What I do know is that it’s only early January, and I’m already sure that this novel will end up on my list of 2012 favorites.