I picked up Cowl on a whim while I was on vacation in London this summer. The SFF section of every bookstore I went into seemed to prominently feature the works of Neal Asher, an author whose work I hadn’t really scene in America. Asher seems to have written some extensive series, and when I picked up Cowl I thought it was the first installment of a space opera epic (as the covers of his books seem to suggest that they are all part of the same universe), but as it turns out it is something of a standalone time travel story.
Part space opera, the plot involves two far future human factions who have discovered time travel and are battling each other across all of Earth’s history. Cowl, a genetically designed superior human, has traveled far back with his allies the Umbrathane. The Umbrathane’s enemies, the Heliothane Dominion, fear that Cowl is trying to create a timeline where humanity doesn’t exist, and they are trying to find a way to stop him.
Cowl’s plan also involves creating a giant time-spanning monster that leaves scales through time that people pick up. These scales, or “tors”, drag their users irrevocably back through time toward Cowl’s hideout built in the early days of Earth’s planetary formation. One of the tors ends up in the hands of our primary protagonists Polly, a hapless prostitute who is dragged into a situation beyond her understanding, and Tack, a government agent who has been dispatched to deal with her. The book primarily follows the adventures of these two characters, with characters who are able to illustrate the larger scope of the conflict being added as the story goes on.
For a long book, Cowl flows very nicely and reads rather quickly. The plot is fast paced, and Asher does a great job of keeping up a high level of action. I think a big part of that has to do with how Asher breaks up each chapter into multiple points of view. Instead of having each character have their own chapter, the action is broken up into smaller, more digestible parts. I think this helps provide a stronger sense of narrative motion, but it also avoids the issues of having characters with “boring chapters” that readers have to slog through. At any point where the action slows down, the reader only has to push through a few pages before getting right back into the heart of the excitement.
In terms of story, I thought Cowl was a fun time travel tale with engaging characters. I can’t say that it was incredibly ground breaking, or that I think it’s a “must read” novel with a ton of depth, but it is certainly enjoyable. I can also say that it was good enough that I think I very well may pick up some of Asher’s other novels in the future.