This was my first involvement with a Stross novel—to the chagrin of some of my more varyingly read friends—but after this unique little stepping off point, I think there’s potential for some trail prodding down his road after this. Halting State is a near-future Sci-fi novel set in a post secession Scotland (relevancy and timeliness points!). That, however, is not the point of the novel—that lies in the crime.
A crime, you ask? Egads, who lies at the heart of this madness? Well, that’s the question. The crime in question is a digital caper, one that has left Hayek Associates—economists for online games—robbed, in a way that suggests someone’s making use of cryptographic keys. Enter the cops, panicky insurers, and an ex-game developer filling the role of partner and consultant to the aforementioned cops. These take the form of three different protagonists, sent to tackle a robbery that only seems to form the first piece in a very large puzzle.
To begin, I would be remiss if I did not address the POV, as it will no doubt put a lot of people off—and very nearly did to me—in the manner of its approach. From the earliest days of English class it was beaten into all of our heads that second person POV—let alone second person POV for THREE different branches of a novel—is bad. Very bad. So bad you want to whack it with a stick.
Naturally, Stross broke that stick and threw it in the woods, before proceeding to mix his language with a whole bunch of technobabble. It’s daunting, and it’s off-putting, but my one assurance here is that to stick with it is to break free—as the novel goes along, its pacing and enjoyability increases quickly.
Unfortunately, I’ve got to pick a little more before I praise. The character-loving soul inside me was not satisfied. Surprisingly, the panicky insurer was the most entertaining and engaging of the heroes; of the others, one seemed utterly unnecessary to the greater mobility of the plot, while the other manages to bring some good twists into the mix. (Full disclosure: I adore the Song of Ice and Fire saga. This should indicate the level of twist snobbery that is involved in that analysis.)
All this said, if the first bit of the book is pressed beyond, what remains is a well-paced, well-penned mystery that knows enough not to dwell on any one point too long before a new piece of the mystery arises and the plot as a whole tumbles forward. There is sufficient action for entertainment, a delightful course of thrill, and enough detail to leave you bobbing your head along in understanding when the reveals do happen.
Halting State is a book with its share of troubles, but in all, it is an entertaining, well-plodded mystery set in a uniquely built world. It’ll steal some hours away before you know it—you just have to stick it out.