Sons of Sol
Kevin R. McNally
When I was approached by Demain Publishing about reviewing Sons of Sol I have to admit that I was both highly intrigued, and yet also a little wary. Demain are one of my favourite publishers, both in terms of working with them and as well as the exceedingly high quality of the fiction that they publish – starting with horror fiction in the form of the superb Short Sharp Shocks! series’ and now rapidly expanding into science-fiction, fantasy, crime and numerous other genres. I’ve never been anything less than deeply impressed by any title that I’ve reviewed from Demain, and their ability to maintain that level of quality across multiple years of a globe-spanning pandemic has readily earnt both my respect and admiration. As such, any title that they publish is clearly going to be high-quality and not something to be dismissed lightly. Yet I was also wary because Sons of Sol is not written by an author that Demain have previously worked with, but is in fact written by actor Kevin R. McNally – perhaps best known to international audiences for his entertaining role in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as Joshamee Gibbs, close friend and ally of Johnny Depps’ Jack Sparrow character. Though personally I’ve always been a fan of McNally’s role as Carl Goerdeler in Valkyrie, a short-lived but crucial role that McNally delivered perfectly, crafting a stand-out performance in an already superb piece of cinematography. So McNally is clearly a gifted actor across movies and television – but would he be able to transfer that skill to the very different medium of written fiction?
I have to admit that I was curious to find out, especially as Demain have never set a foot wrong yet; and that curiosity was aided by the usual superb cover art by author and illustrator extraordinaire Adrain Baldwin, and a back-cover blurb that seemed to promise the sort of retro science-fiction tale that harks back to the age of Heinlein and E.E. “Doc” Smith. Tony Smith and Percival Prendergast are genius graduates of the prestigious Edinburgh Space Propulsion Academy who have developed a revolutionary space engine that will completely change the way spaceships travel around Earth’s solar colonies and trade goods and services. However, while many are interested in the engine, not all of them want to actually purchase said engine; and when one interested party hires a bounty hunter to kidnap the duo, the two men find themselves embroiled in a complex web of greed, betrayal and ambition that they may not be able to escape from. Taken all together, it sounded like a highly intriguing package, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into Sons of Sol.
McNally wastes no time throwing us into the action, with a memorable opening chapter that sees the President of Earth departing Gagarin Space Station – orbiting the Earth two hundred and fifty miles above Morocco – onboard her spaceship Space Force One. The President is heading for peace negotiations with the Centauris, a distant colony that Earth has been locked into a conflict with for some time. As Space Force One departs the space station, however, it suddenly disappears in a silent flash of light, killing all onboard the vessel. Whether it’s an accident or a successful assassination attempt is unclear – but regardless, it’s an explosive and attention-grabbing way to open the novel, and one that instantly hooked me. From there, the novel turns to focus on Smith and Prendergast as they and their fellow students at the Academy react to the disaster, and whether this represents an opportunity for the duo to unveil their new form of propulsion – and in the process both revolutionise space travel and make bucketloads of money. When their invention attracts the attention of rich and powerful industrialists, the two men think they’ve finally reached their goal – only to find themselves falling foul of interplanetary politics. Soon the two unfortunate engineers find themselves being pursued around the solar system and even beyond it, embroiled in a conspiracy involving the bloodthirsty despot of Alpha Centauri and his treacherous, warlike intentions. Can they make it out alive? Will their revolutionary engine fuel conflict – or peace? And will they still be able to make those bucketfuls of money in the process?
While the main theme that runs through Sons of Sol is Golden Age science fiction, there’s also a strong Wodehouse influence in its writing, and particularly in McNally’s portrayal of the two protagonists, from their social classes to mode of speaking, and it actually meshes delightfully well with the setting and overarching narrative, as well as the wicked sense of humour that runs through the spine of the book. I genuinely sniggered out loud at a brief discussion of how the two protagonists had named their revolutionary engine, moving between names that were either impractical, misogynistic (deftly skewering one of the less delightful aspects of Golden Age fiction) or outright crude, before settling on a name that sounded impressive while also being mostly irrelevant in the process. At the same time, I was deeply impressed by the manner in which McNally deftly crafted a retro-style alternate history for Earth and its history of spaceflight and exploration – for example, early on in the story it’s demonstrated how this reality has been defined by a greater adherence to Wernher von Braun’s theories, with Push Drive engines that propel spaceships by detonating nuclear bombs behind themselves to deliver thrust, and the greatest engineers recognized with the von Braun medal. It’s subtle and superbly engaging worldbuilding that demonstrates both the research McNally clearly did for the background of this setting, and the manner in which the story has been carefully crafted to match Golden Age scifi stories. In turn, this is all deftly integrated with the fantastically imaginative infrastructure and architecture McNally populates the novel with – from the Delia Smith Spaceport in the Megopolis of Norwich, a Maglev Vacuum Tunnel stretching across Europe, and the Gagarin Space Station itself. It all adds to that sense of wonder and technological triumph at the centre of Golden Age fiction, which McNally replicates in such a confident and captivating manner. There’s also a nice variety of settings, with the narrative racing between planets as varied as Mars, Neptune and the moon Titan, as well as other, more exotic locales I shan’t mention for want of spoiling the plot.
The superb worldbuilding and entertaining prose is complemented by the excellent cast of engaging characters that McNally populates the novel with. Smith is a whiplash smart but deeply egotistical engineer who wants to develop something that will lead to riches, mansions and women. By comparison, Prendergast is a romantic at heart, aiming for the betterment of humanity while simultaneously chasing unavailable women and suffering at the hands of their beefier boyfriends, and lacking the ruthless spark contained within Smith. They’re an intriguingly mismatched duo that nonetheless are a highly engaging and entertaining duo, with McNally skillfully playing the two of them off against each other, and the duo against all newcomers, to drive the narrative forward. They’re supported by a superbly-developed cast of secondary characters – from Betty, glamorous and ruthless bounty hunter who may actually be in over her head, to the delightfully pompous and overbearing Battle Cruiser Commander Zoltac of Alpha Centauri – a preening, bombastic leader of questionable competency who gradually takes centre stage as the main antagonist of the novel. I was also particularly taken with Helot19, a robot servant who finds itself thrown into a tenuous alliance with Smith and Prendergast, and who begins to develop an intriguing personality by the end of the novel.
Sons of Sol is a whiplash-fast, smartly-written, often hilarious and utterly thrilling homage to the Golden Age of science-fiction writing, brought into the 21st Century by Kevin McNally who has proven that his skill as an author equally matches his skill on stage and screen. McNally has created a vibrant, complex and multi-faceted universe, filled with compelling, larger-than-life characters ranging from engineers, scientists and diplomats to bounty hunters and bloodthirsty dictators, all set within a rocket-propelled narrative that doesn’t slow down until the very last page. It’s one of the most enjoyable and entertaining slices of science fiction writing that I’ve read in a very long time, and I am genuinely on tenterhooks as to whether there will be any sequels to Sons of Sol; the conclusion to the novel certainly sows the seeds for future stories, and I can only hope that McNally and Demain Publishing will collaborate again in the future, given the results of this superb partnership.