In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parchute 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. As back cover blurbs go Gareth Powell’s latest novel certainly grabs the attention. The book versus cover argument is valid, but there are exceptions for every rule and this is one of them. What’s not to love about a monkey in a flight jacket wielding a bazooka and a really big gun?
For the most part the novel takes place in 2058, in a world of Zeppelins, robots, mystery and soul-stealing, with Ack-Ack Macaque at the centre of three separate threads that tie into each other as a singular narrative about halfway through the novel. Victoria Valois is an ex-journalist who is trying to hunt down the man that killed her estranged husband and stole her electronic soul, and her search will take her to the upper echelons of British Royalty and a plot that might just end in Armageddon. Meanwhile, His Royal Highness Prince Merovich, the Prince of Wales, is a reluctant Monarch-in-waiting. With his father in a coma and his overbearing mother dictating his every move he wants nothing more than to be free, fall in love with Julie Girard and live a normal life.
Ack-Ack Macaque is stuck firmly in the middle of these shenanigans and, unlike reluctant participants Valois and Merovich, Ack-Ack relishes the violence and mayhem that erupts around him at every turn. He’s an addictive character that could have been one dimensional in the hands of a lesser writer, but Powell makes him sympathetic with a few simple insights into his “life” before becoming the monkey in a Spitfire.
Powell clearly had a blast writing this, and his enthusiasm is infectious. There’s neither enough steam- or cyber-punk for it to be described as such and, with each passing page, you realise that this is what the author wanted to write. There are no delusions of grandeur or pandering to current trends, just a story that the author wanted to write and that wouldn’t stop nagging at him until the words were typed.
The story rattles along at a cracking pace, and Powell knows when to reveal information and when to draw it out. Despite the fact that this is a sort-of-sequel to a story published in Interzone in 2007 (which is also included as an extra at the back of the novel) the author could very well have dragged out the “reveal” about Ack-Ack until later in the story but Powell very wisely chooses to get it out of the way after half a dozen chapters, making for a tight story that is a great deal of fun to read.
That’s not to say there aren’t larger issues that are explored. A staple of any science fiction novel is to explore what it means to be human and, whilst Ack-Ack Macaque never beats the reader over the head with philosophy it does ask questions about death and the nature of personality. The debate is there for those who want to see it, and those who don’t can just read a rip-roaring yarn about a cigar smoking monkey with a bad attitude.
The attitude of the novel is reminiscent of the works of Jasper Fforde, and although Powell doesn’t display the linguistic gymnastics of Fforde it is the sheer passion that spills from each page which the comparison brings to mind with its reality warping logic and the ability of both writers to raise a smile every few paragraphs.
With sequel Hive Monkey due to be published in January next year this is the perfect time to expose yourself to some monkey love.
Ack-Ack Macaque is now available from Solaris Books