In a Mirror Universe, This Review Is Backwards
In the great sea that is the scifi/fantasy section of the bookstore or the local library, choosing any one particular book from the multitude can be a challenge. Unless you're following a series or an author, it can be daunting to try and pick one story you don't know anything about from all the rest. Sometimes the best thing a book can do is combine interesting cover art and a completely nonsensical name. That's pretty much exactly what led me to pick up Cowboy Angels, by Paul McAuley, at my local library. And boy, did that strategy pay off.
Cowboy Angels (yes, the name is explained) does what all good science fiction does; it takes the world, introduces a particular change, and extrapolates outwards from there. In this case, the change is that in the 1970s the United States discovered 'Turing Gates', inter-dimensional portals that allowed for travel from that United States to other, parallel versions. Some were empty of people entirely or populated only by 'apemen', but more interesting were the universes where a United States existed, but not one that any modern-day American would recognize as the home of the brave and the land of the free. The action takes place across the contested communist-ruled America, the recently-liberated ex-fascist 'American Bund' sheaf, and a host of post-nuclear war Americas, with the promise of more Americas out there beyond what the characters interact with. It's a fascinating universe, and one that I personally would gladly revist in the future.
But a setting is not a story, and this book has a doozy of a story. A retired CIG agent, Jack Stone, is called in from his pioneer life on a 'wild sheaf' to try and help the authorities with a problem; his old partner, Tom Waverly, has killed six women. The thing is, he's killed six of the same women, one woman across six different sheafs, and on the last one a note has been found indicating he'll talk to Stone and only Stone about it. Hoping to safely bring in a man who saved his life back in the wild and woolly days of their time with the Company, Stone agrees to come back for what he imagines will be the work of a day or two. Of course, it would hardly be an interesting book if Stone weren't fantastically wrong about that.
Cowboy Angels is a science fiction thriller, and McAuley is quite good at continually spinning the plot just beyond the reach of Stone and his allies, both in the Company and outside it. What starts as a seemingly simple murder investigation turns out to be a story of massive corruption and conspiracy, with a disenfranchised group of ex-Company operatives plotting something Stone at first can only vaguely glimpse, but which promises to threaten everything. Stone, led around in the dark as often as he's able to throw his own spanner into the works, finds himself with no choice but to keep pushing at the edges of the conspiracy.
In the best thriller tradition, Stone is beat up, shot at, tortured for information and used by pretty much everyone around him, at one point or another. As a protagonist Stone works well, with good motivation for his initial foray out of retirement and for continuing on after its apparently tragic conclusion. For most of the book stone is assisted by Linda Waverly, Tom's daughter and a current Company agent, and while her motivations are simpler, they're no less concrete. Too often in thrillers either the heroes of the villains will have no actual reason to do what they do; the heroes should just leave whatever the problem is to the authorities, and the villains should just ignore the heroes, or not even involve them in the first place. Cowboy Angels does not find itself suffering from that problem, and frankly that alone would be enough for me to recommend it. But the book does more than just establish decent motivations; it creates a vast and fascinating world, one too-faintly glimpsed in some cases, peoples it with characters who all act in reasonable, rational ways (for a given value of rational), and sets protagonist and shadowy conspiracy on a solid collision course from pretty much the word go. As a thriller it's rock-solid, as a science fiction novel its impressively inventive, and as a combination of the two styles its a clear success.
Go out and get Cowboy Angels. You won't be disappointed by the story, and you'll even get to find out what the title means.