In The Recollection we start off with two different story lines separated by 400 years. The first one kicks off in present day London with Ed, a failed painter. He is just about to get his hand chopped off for not being able to pay off his gambling debts. His older and more responsible brother - Verne, a successful war correspondent - has to bail him out. There is a lot of tension between the two. Things have always gone well for Verne, and less so for Ed. Verne even married Ed's girl.
After having more or less saved Ed, the brothers have a fight as Verne realises what Ed has done behind his back. In anger he storms off down the escalators of a tube, and does not notice when a portal opens. Verne is sucked into the portal, and Ed is left on his own.
Together with Verne's wife, Alice, Ed goes through another portal to try and find his brother. It gets really exciting here as the two steps into the unknown. They have prepared, but nothing can quite prepare them for appearing on a different planet. Each new portal brings them to a new place, and new dangers.
I really like the world building in The Recollection. It's always interesting to read novels where faster than light (FTL) speeds are not possible. This has some interesting consequences for the those who travel at the speed of light. While years pass for those not traveling, mere moments might pass for the travelers. It raises a lot of questions for anyone investing in, or piloting a space craft. As a pilot it's likely a lot of things have changed. For an investor, you won't see any returns for any trades for years, or even decades.
Many writers introduce the extension of the human life span as a solution for this, but not so Gareth L Powell. His universe is a lot more low tech, and the actual technology for spaceships is reverse engineered from the gateways.
The idea of a lone pilot, acting as a merchant on the fringe of the law is compelling. I think it's safe to blame Han Solo and his Millennium Falcon for that feeling. Gareth L Powell pays homage to the lone pilot concept with his character, Katherine. A feisty and headstrong woman, who practically grew up on a spaceship. She comes from a family of successful traders, but she made a mistake and has fallen out of grace. Katherine is not quite as capable as Han Solo, and more than once she gets into to trouble for overestimating her own abilities.
My biggest problem is however the plot itself. There are several good ideas in the world building, but too many ingredients in all to make a balanced dish. The concept of a Chosen One is the worst sin, it just does not fit naturally into Sci-Fi. It just works a lot better when there is magic involved, giving the Chosen One some kind of special power or ability. I would have preferred it to be a story about ordinary people, instead of a saving the universe one. Gareth L Powell is trying to do too many things at once with his story. This is also a problem with the characters. There is too many of them in such a short book, and the result is somewhat flat and lifeless characters. Ed is the more interesting of the two, and he feels more realistic than Katherine.
The Recollection is still worth a read for a few reasons. It's a interesting world building with some great ideas. It also ticks a lot of boxes: cheeky AIs, mysterious alien benefactors, action and a gorgeous cover. It also reads well. The chapters are short and have pace, often ending with a small cliff hanger, which really pulls you in to the story. It was difficult to put down, and it is really a well written book, which unfortunately does not quite meet my expectations.
The Recollection weighs in at 400 pages and is published by Solaris Books.