Heart of Granite
James Barclay
Gollancz, 416 pages
Reviewed: Ian Hunter

Apart from being the President of the British Fantasy Society, following Ramsey Campbell who held that position for decades, James Barclay is better known as the author of several fantasy series starting way back in 1999 with the Chronicles of the Raven trilogy, followed by other series rooted in fantasy, culminating in the recent Elves books. Now we have Heart of Granite the first in his Blood and Fire series, touted as science fiction, but probably more science fantasy, set centuries in the future where war is being waged in a ravaged world using weapons culled from alien DNA.

Barclay has come up with the brilliant, but slightly bonkers idea of a world using DNA to create reptilian or insect-like pieces of military software – living creatures which soldiers can ride on based on creatures like geckos, or iguanas or fast-moving basilisks. The Heart of Granite (or the HoG) is a leviathan creature, a behemoth. Like a living, breathing, moving aircraft carrier which houses thousands of people. People live, eat, and sleep there, and leave to fight their part of a never-ending war, and sometimes never come back again. Rather than planes flying out on missions to engage in dogfights with enemy forces, pilots fly inside drakes, or dragons.

The greatest of these pilots are those which make up the Inferno-X squadron and the best of them is Max Halloran, loved by some and hated by others, but still the pin-up boy for his side. He lives for the moment, like the rest of his crew. They might die tomorrow, or even worse, give in to the Fall, when they succumb to the mental strain of being linked to their drakes, for drake minds are too powerful and eventually human minds sink into madness.

One of his squadron is already showing those signs and will end in the area known as “Landfall” where all the “Fallen” are consigned as human vegetables. In order to save his friend, Max must journey to the secret parts of the HoG for an illegal drug which will mask and delay the effects of the Fall for a little while. But other drugs and upgrades are needed when Inferno-X are almost wiped out by an enemy squadron, upgrades which haven’t been approved or tested properly. Max soon realises that they are cannon fodder, especially when an enemy leviathan is within their sights and they could deliver a killer blow to the enemy – a great result in an election year. But Max has made too many enemies and doesn’t know when to shut his motor mouth or stop his fists from flying.

On trumped-up charges he ends up in Landfill and soon discovers that what he thought was the truth is far from it, but he is going to end up lost and forgotten, drugged up and tested on, unless he can do two impossible things – escape from Landfill, and then escape from the HoG, with his drake, Martha. Meanwhile, the HoG, desperately in need of some R&R, is being pushed to the limit as it pursues an equally stricken leviathan.

Heart of Granite has already been labelled “Top Gun with dragons” and likened to Battlestar Galactica – the gritty remake version, rather than the original – and perhaps even the gung-ho style of the Starship Troopers movies. Certainly, the novel is jammed packed with well-described and action-packed aerial drake-fights as well as a fair dose of political intrigue and shenanigans where no-one in authority can really be trusted. It’s great fun, and a great page-turner. The book builds up to an almost Star Wars like climax as time and chances run out to save the HoG from enemy attack. As the novel unfolds, Max develops as a more-rounded character and Barclay leaves enough cliff-hangers and dangling threads, and enough lives in the balance to make me look forward to 2018 when the next thrilling instalment of Blood and Fire will appear. It can’t come quickly enough.

This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 6.