Savant – Nik Abnett

From Solaris Books comes Savant, the first full novel from Nik Abnett, who might be more familiar to some under the name Nik Vincent. A brave, adventurous book, it’s set in a recognisable but clearly different world where the Earth is protected from the rest of the galaxy by a shield generated by the minds of certain key individuals. A complex system of roles and organisation keeps minds like these around the world calm and functioning in order to safeguard the shield, but when one man begins to stray from his usual routine the entire system risks falling apart.

I’m going to break all my self-imposed rules with this review and write the rest in the first person, with a longer and more subjective approach than usual, because this is a tricky review to write. Why? Well that intro, summing up the basis of the plot – I didn’t know any of that when I read the book. Nothing. You see, I’m a fan of Nik’s, both as a writer (through Black Library) and as a person (read her tweets and her blog – it’s worth it), so when I saw Savant on NetGalley I requested it and started reading it without any kind of synopsis or blurb. My experience reading the book was fundamentally determined by this – for better or worse – which means for a review I have to write based on how I read the book, which in this case was through the lens of not knowing anything about what was going on…

This is an ideas book – classic speculative fiction, I’d say. From the off there’s a sense of otherness to the world that’s immediately interesting but, and here’s an important point, never fully expanded upon or explained. For me that’s a positive – I like books that encourage me to be patient and have faith that it’ll all make sense eventually. I liked the little touches of otherness, and to me the fact that Nik didn’t feel the need to explain it all away, instead trusting to the reader to accept the world for what it is, was great. The world’s caste system, the buttons that everyone wears or uses to check into their routines, the concept of Service as a function and as an organisation – it’s clearly well-developed and thought through, but it’s only gradually and partially revealed as the book continues. As for linopro, eggpro and cotpro, what they are and why they’re used, it’s touches like that which add texture to the world. I’ve still no idea what they all really are…but I don’t mind that.

As for the concept of the shield and how it’s generated…well it took me 230 pages to figure out what on earth was going on! The characters were all there in front of me – Master Tobe, Assistant-Companion Metoo, and the various Operators on the Service floors – and I read in increasing fascination as these strange personalities did their jobs and interacted and grew increasingly worried and confused and anxious, but I didn’t have the slightest clue what the actual problem was. It didn’t matter though, because it was interesting. I was hooked by Metoo’s strange dedication to caring for the childlike but brilliant Master Tobe (read what you like into his mental and emotional status, and the implications therein), and even though I didn’t understand why the maths-obsessed Master’s unusual activities were a problem, it was fascinating to watch the drama unfold and try to pick apart the whys and hows. There’s a level of detail here, in the (rather beautiful) technology that Service uses to observe and analyse and the structure of Service itself, that’s reassuring even if – like me – you don’t have the full picture yet.

To me it was akin to reading an Iain M. Banks book, where you just have to keep going and accept that things will come together in the end. And there’s where it becomes really difficult to review this, as I still (several days and much thought later) can’t quite decide what I think about the ending. I’m in no doubt as to Nik’s skill in putting together both the world and the story itself, which is for the most part beautifully paced and constructed, and isn’t overshadowed by the technology or the sci-fi-ness of it all. I’m just not sure of two things – firstly that I properly understand what actually happened, and secondly what I think of the story as a whole in context of the ending…such as I understand it. So I’m in an interesting position of having absolutely loved the book, but now trying to figure out precisely what I think. That’s not a bad thing, far from it – in fact that’s the reason why I’ve written the view in this way, to try and get across that a book which leaves the reader unsure and thoughtful at the end can actually be wonderful thing.

Would I recommend this to other people? Absolutely. Would I suggest you read the synopsis before starting? Well…probably. I can’t help wondering just how different my opinion would be had I done that – perhaps I would have understood the ending better through knowing more about what was happening throughout, but then perhaps I would have enjoyed the experience of finding it all out less had I already grasped the concept of the shield, and Service. There’s no right and wrong answer here, just an interesting question. Which is what this book is itself – an interesting question. Is it perfect? Nope. Is it good? Yes indeed.

Leave a comment