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“Desolation Road” by Ian McDonald


Desolation Road was Ian McDonald’s first novel. The title refers to a village that was never meant to exist, a small community on the Bethlehem Ares Railroad in the middle of the Martian desert. It becomes home to a small number of eccentrics and outcasts from across Martian society and this book describes their lives over several decades as the fortunes of the town rise and then fall.

The characters are an interesting mix, including an eccentric scientist, the world’s greater snooker player, a circus pilot, a rebel leader, an ambitious politician and many others. Although there are some interesting and memorable characters, in some ways the characterisation is a bit of a disappointment when compared to McDonald’s later works such as River of Gods or The Dervish House. There often seems to be a lack of character development and arguably many of the characters don’t really change their basic personality throughout the course of the novel. The characters are also not particularly realistic and their behaviour feels like it is more determined by the demands of the plot or the whim of the author rather than them being believable characters in their own right. This does fit with the whimsical style of the novel, but it does often make it hard to really care about what happens to the characters.

The plot is fairly episodic with chapters covering events both small and large, ranging from the visit of a travelling show and the murder of one of its citizens to the town becoming the focus of a major religious pilgrimage and also the site of a major mining operation. Some of the subplots are interesting and entertaining and there is plenty of imagination shown in both the plotting and the world-building, but sometimes the plot developments are trying a bit too hard to be quirky and since it is hard to take the plot entirely seriously the book often isn’t particularly compelling. Other than sharing a common setting and some common characters the different episodes also feel a bit disconnected from each other and although the last section of the book does put the entire existence of Desolation Road in peril the plot still feels a bit incoherent.

The strongest feature of the book is the writing itself, McDonald’s prose is excellent, particularly for a debut novel and there are some evocative descriptions of the Martin landscape and the strange people who inhabit it. However, while in his later work McDonald manages to combine that good prose with good storytelling, this novel doesn’t quite manage that. It is entertaining and with some memorable moments but ultimately a bit unsatisfying and the whole feels like it is less than the sum of its parts.

Rating : 7 / 10

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