The Edge

‘The Edge’ by James Smythe: A Book Review

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One author I’ve read consistently during the last 10 years is James Smythe. One of his early novels, The Testimony, coincided with my starting to write book reviews, and I absolutely loved it. I then discovered he had an interesting Twitter account (something else I was discovering for the first time—groundbreaking times!) and I’ve followed his career ever since, always interested to see where he would go next. A few years ago, I wrote this for GeekDad. Smythe is an author whose work never fails to provoke a strong reaction in me. His novels are often deeply unsettling, including the first two books in his Anomaly Quartet. There’s been a long gap between books 2 and 3, but finally, The Edge is here. 

What Is The Edge?

The Edge is the third book in the Anomaly Quartet. The intervening years have made me hazy on the details of the first two books, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of The Edge. Both the previous novels (The Explorer and The Echo) are elaborately constructed taut thrillers, so I don’t want to say too much about them, lest I give things away. It is not essential to have read them both before reading The Edge. This installment takes place some years after The Echo, again we’re in the future and onboard a spaceship, albeit one that is relatively close to Earth. 

As the novel opens, one of the crew members commits suicide by throwing themselves out of an airlock. What follows is the account of Alannah, another crew member, an engineer, and a close friend of the deceased astronaut. Alannah has a child down on earth and an ex-husband who is clearly a monster. 

The spaceship contains a ragtag crew. State funding for the project (examining the anomaly) was pulled, leaving the financing entirely down to its aging lead scientist, Tomas Hyvönen. Hyvönen is driven by an unhealthy desire to be the man who saves the world, the man who solves the anomaly. He is far, far too old to be in space, fragile both physically and mentally. With the time for the mission running out, he asks Alannah to break the rules for one last exploration. 

After the suicide of her friend, Alannah is deeply uneasy. Rogue thoughts and fugue states plague her existence. The isolation of space is getting to her. Or is it something more than that? As the novel progresses, Alannah becomes increasingly convinced something untoward is happening, but is it the effects of the Anomaly or the rest of the crew keeping something terrible from her? 

Why Read The Edge?

I don’t think many authors do creepy and unsettling like James Smythe. For just about all of his books, I find myself thinking, “Why am I reading this?” simultaneously with “I can’t stop reading this!” and so it is with The Edge. 

Smythe’s books are largely about identity and the role of technology can play in altering how we see ourselves. Here this is present again. Hyvönen is using a memory machine to attempt to keep himself himself. This type of machine was introduced in Smythe’s novel, The Machine(which, if you haven’t read, you definitely should—it’s brilliant and criminally underread) and allows people to upload memories to their brain, giving them hope of staving off the effects of dementia. As you can imagine, this throws up all sorts of existential conundra. 

Layered over the top of this analysis of memory is Alannah’s own, more brutal, reprogramming by an abusive husband. A man who gaslighted her during an episode of post-natal depression. Alongside the slick “What the heck is going on?” plot is a subtle examination of the power and control that comes with emotional abuse. This takes us into an exploration of the reliability of memory and how our recollections define us—a strong theme through many of Smythe’s books. 

Alongside that, as for the first two books in the quartet, we have an Arthur C. Clarke-style empty spaceship science fiction story. A spaceship with secrets that will inevitably leak out as it sits in the shadow of the undefinable anomaly. There are all sorts of possibilities here. 

When Smythe collapses the possibilities down to a singularity, it is time for a contented little sigh. The denouement maintains the taut tension that suffuses the novel and allows you to pretend you knew what was going on, even if you probably didn’t. Even after the “reveal,” there are fifty or so more pages of satisfying, thought-provoking science fiction to enjoy. By the end of The Edge, we, the readers, know a little more about the anomaly, which can’t help but whet our appetite for the final book in the series. 

Whilst this a third book in a quartet, The Edge does stand on its own two feet as a novel. You could start here and return to the previous two novels, but I think the scene-setting of The Explorer will probably help better inform what might be going on here. Nevertheless, wherever you start with the works of James Smythe, you’re in for a treat. Albeit an unsettling one!

If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Edge, you can do so here in the US, and here in the UK. 

If you enjoyed this review, check out more of my book reviews. 

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