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Impakto by Richard Calder
(Earthlight, £6.99, 442 pages, paperback; published 3 September 2001; ISBN 0-7434-0895-0.)

How to explain the plot of Impakto in less than 100 words? Raul Riviera is a rather snivelling and unsympathetic middle-aged cover scanman - he doesn't know why and doesn't want to be, but he is. Travelling home to the Philippines on an aeroplane Riviera is seated next to a 'man' who is also returning home.

Deep breath now: unfortunately this 'man' is returning to the Philippines to kill the demon king and queen there who had rescued him from his own abortion by infusing him with thousands of his own personal demons, thus making him an impakto; these demons are reluctant to participate in any form of regicide so they possess everyone aboard the plane (except Riviera - he is cocooned in a horrible 'flesh marshmallow' cocoon) and crash it, leaving only Riviera alive to be contacted by the demon community of the Philippines, one decadently beautiful example of whom, the chief artificer Maximillia Morales, affixes a 'bionic' claw in place of his right hand because, like the plane hijacker, Riviera turns out to be impakto also, and as such is the weapon that the revolutionary demon underground have been waiting for to kill the king and queen of the other-dimensional demon city of Ur so that an ancient spaceship buried beneath the palace at its centre can be uncovered and used to attack God - because He has recently been brought into being by the continued human outpourings of faith in His existence and is determined to assume control over all of His dominions.

Richard Calder seems to be writing in a little genre of his own invention, one that melds an archaic, decadent use of language with a reprise of Golden Age sf technology - 'purple-punk', 'cyber-gothic', call it what you want; to my knowledge nobody else has written anything quite like it for decades. Calder's closest literary relatives are William Hope-Hodgson, HP Lovecraft and various other largely forgotten fantasists of the earlier years of the 20th century, and in Impakto we're reminded of these roots more than any of Calder's previous novels.

The problem I found was that, whilst admiring the prose and audacity of the plot individually, they didn't really work together. Impakto suffers from a rather jerky development - Calder sometimes spends whole pages describing the most fleeting events in prose so purple it's almost ultraviolet, whilst at other times months can pass in a single sentence. The uneven pace disrupts the rhythm, so that the book always felt too long or too short, but never 'just right'.

The unique prose worked very well in Calder's earlier works such as Malignos, where the richness of the background was rendered perfectly by the overindulgent use of long, obscure words to describe a strange and extraordinary world; but the world of Impakto, and its genuinely breath-taking, sacrilegious plot, is not best-served by such language. Such a mythical-level plot needs to be told in the more simplistic form of Legend, not in overwrought High Gothic prose. It needs the prose of a Milton or a Dante, not a Mrs Radcliffe.

Finally, I couldn't find it in myself to be bothered about Riviera: he's not a character I felt any empathy for or that I could get under the skin of. We get only the barest sense of Riviera's development because his past bears no apparent relation to, and has no bearing whatsoever upon, his destiny. Shocking revelations come and shocking revelations go, but most were simply too deus ex machina to shore up Riviera's character beyond a few basic Pavlovian traits.

The first few chapters of Impakto first appeared in Interzone as a short story at the end of 1999, which might, I suppose, offer a technical explanation as to why there isn't the slightest intimation of his stormy origins therein; however Impakto does not read like a novel proper, but rather a hurried fix-up of various stories.

There are a few sections in Impakto that read very well, and God knows the story is ambitious enough; but these are islands in an otherwise dead calm sea that takes an overlong time to sail.

Review by Stuart Carter

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© Stuart Carter 10 November 2001