While science fiction as a genre can occasionally take itself too seriously, with Ack-Ack Macaque Gareth L. Powell has shown that he understands how important it is for books to sometimes just be fun. Set in an alternative future where Britain and France are about to celebrate the centenary of their political and economic union, it follows a journalist hunting her ex-husband’s killer, while hosting a backup of said ex-husband inside her brain, and the British Crown Prince trying to extricate himself from a life of tedious duties in favour of the quiet life as a student. All the while the titular Ack-Ack Macaque, a violent, foul-mouthed monkey, is beginning to question the world around him as he battles German planes from the cockpit of his Spitfire.
If it all sounds a bit preposterous, well…it is. It’s not a joke though, this is a well crafted story set in a beautifully thought out world; there’s a great mixture of advanced technology, familiar landmarks and places, and old-fashioned mid-twentieth century stylings that results in a setting that’s believable and recognisable while still feeling new and exciting. Powell has done great work building up the whole world, from politics to history, always keeping close to the real world while maintaining a line just a little off to the left. And in a world of nuclear-powered dirigibles, robot security guards and backed-up consciousnesses, the idea of a talking, cigar-chomping monkey seems almost plausible.
We follow the three characters as they pursue their own, seemingly unrelated goals, before inevitably intersecting with each other as the book progresses; as the story continues they each develop into genuinely strong, relatable characters. Interestingly, while Ack-Ack Macaque himself absolutely steals the show, by having him as one of three viewpoint characters Powell strikes a good balance between the different characters and stops the book from being purely about a talking monkey. He’s an absolute standout character, but it’s the observations that other characters have about him that demonstrate he’s more than just an action hero who happens to look like a monkey, and is in fact a wild animal trying to fit in and cope in a human world.
Fast paced and really well plotted, clever and characterful, it’s a great book all round. What makes it stand out though is that it’s such good fun to read. It doesn’t try to be overtly satirical or deliberately comedic, but instead maintains an excellent balance between topical issues of murky politics and dubious ethics, and gloriously over the top action, classic page-turner plotting and sharp, witty dialogue. Great fun, and thoroughly entertaining stuff.