I want to start this review with the book’s synopsis because it is a cracker!
‘In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain’s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’. The trouble is, Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence. A century later, in a world where France and Great Britain merged in the late 1950s and nuclear-powered Zeppelins encircle the globe, ex-journalist Victoria Valois finds herself drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the man who butchered her husband and stole her electronic soul. Meanwhile, in Paris, after taking part in an illegal break-in at a research laboratory, the heir to the British throne goes on the run. And all the while, the doomsday clock ticks towards Armageddon.’
Ack-Ack Macaque was the joint winner of the 2013 BSFA Best Novel Award along with Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It is British author Gareth L. Powell’s third novel and is a much-expanded version of his 2007 Interzone reader’s poll-winning short story of the same name. Powell has since penned two highly-rated sequels: Hive Monkey (2014) and Macaque Attack (2015). His latest novel is Embers of War (2018), a space opera which has also been garnering very positive reviews.
As the book opens, Victoria Valois is travelling to London to identify the body of her murdered husband. When she gets there, she is attacked by an unknown assailant and left for dead. Victoria’s attacker also removes her ‘soul-catcher’, a kind of internal memory stick which makes a hard copy of its user’s personality. This plot device leads to the author posing some intriguing questions about consciousness, sentience, and survival after physical death.
‘Something clicked. Something connected. The box in her hands purred, downloading data directly from its memory store to the gelware in her head.’
In a separate plotline we are introduced to the titular Ack-Ack Macaque. He is a highly-skilled Spitfire pilot fighting for Great Britain in the Second World War. And yes, he is a ‘one-eyed, cynical, cigar-chomping monkey’. Ack-Ack Macaque is troubled, though. Recently, something doesn’t quite feel right. He has only vague memories of his life before he joined the Royal Air Force, but these memories seem more akin to a bad dream. On top of that, no matter how many times he gets shot down he always lives to fly again. What is going on?
‘To the RAF, the monkey’s codename was Ack-Ack Macaque. He’d had another name once, back in the mists of his pre-sentience, but now he couldn’t remember what it might have been.’
The third main character is Merovech, prince and heir to the British throne. When we first meet him, he is about to break-in to a research laboratory in France. The small group he is assisting are following a lead that they believe will take them to a sentient A.I. The group wants to free it, but they need Merovech’s help to do so. It quickly becomes clear that Merovech has ulterior motives for his actions, but I don’t want to reveal them here.
What a pleasant surprise this book was! Based on the synopsis and cover art, I was expecting a light tongue-in-cheek tale involving a talking monkey fighter pilot. While it does contain a good dose of humour as well as a sarcastic monkey, this is far from a “silly” story. It goes much deeper than its appearance suggests, posing thought-provoking questions about reality, artificial intelligence, free will, death, consciousness and more. It’s also a rip-roaring and entertaining read which I flew through in no time.
I wholeheartedly recommend Ack-Ack Macaque to all readers of stories. No matter what you’re looking for this book has something for everyone: thrills, chills, laughter, and true heart. Try it. I am sure you won’t be disappointed.