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Cowl    by Neal Asher order for
by Neal Asher
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2004 (2004)
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Polly scrapes a living in a rather depressing future world whose acidic downpours 'caused hair to fall out and laid rashes across a person's scalp.' Polly is a drug-addicted whore, whose best friend Marjae died from 'New AIDS'. Marjae's brother Nandru, a UN Task Force soldier, shows up suddenly, implants an AI 'Muse' in Polly's throat, and disappears. He's followed soon afterwards by 'U-gov' operatives, including an 'inherently immoral' programmable, cloned killer named Tack. They're after something that Nandru has, and he organizes a meeting through the Muse.

During the exchange, Nandru is killed (but a copy of him uploads into the Muse). Polly only survives because she picked up the stolen 'tor', which looks like 'baroque jewelry' but quickly bonds into her flesh and pulls her back through time. Tack is initially dragged with her, and a fragment of the tor imbeds in his wrist. Polly shifts ever backwards through the ages, the intervals increasing exponentially - to World War II, the time of Henry VIII, the Roman occupation of Britain, and on back before the time of the dinosaurs. She ends up eating trilobites in the era in which Cowl is based. Polly is helped by Cowl's sister Aconite, but wonders where her loyalties lie.

Tack is captured and re-programmed (gaining some free will) by 'Traveller', who takes him back in time also. There are conflicts between evolved humans, and it turns out that both Polly and Tack are embroiled in a war being waged through millennia, involving 'Heliothanes', 'Umbrathanes', and the latter's ally, 'the ultimate individual' Cowl. The latter is believed to be a threat to future humanity, and attacks through time with a monstrous 'torbeast'. There are fascinating time travel notions, including a main time line, the probability slope down which alternate lines slip, and 'sub-temporal wormholes' (time tunnels). Tack eventually joins Polly in the era of Cowl's refuge, where they both gain a new perspective.

This is an epic time travel adventure involving ruthless superhuman adversaries, with convoluted loyalties. At one point, the virtual Nandru says 'I'm so glad you explained all that, Polly. There was me thinking it was all a bit complicated' ... which pretty well sums up my reaction to Cowl. It's full of great SF ideas but is, to my taste, all a bit complicated.

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