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by Tricia Sullivan

(Orbit, £10.99, 355 pages, trade paperback, published November 2003; 6.99, 419 pages, paperback, June 2004.)

Two stories unfold in parallel in this fast and furious blend of gender issues and balls-cover scanout ("ovaries-out"??) action. In a future where Y-plagues have almost wiped out the male population, Dr Madeleine Baldino is researching the effects of a self-diagnostic game called Mall on the immune system of her laboratory specimen, Meniscus. And somewhere in near-contemporary suburban America, three Korean girls head for the shopping "maul" to shop for cosmetics and engage the local girl gang in a little territorial gunplay.

It becomes clear fairly early on that this latter storyline is a metaphor for the former, an entertaining device that allows Sullivan to present the immune processes of Meniscus' body, essential as they are to the plot, in terms other than the purely dry and medical. The tale of Sun Katz and her friends is narrated in a punchy colloquial style and seasoned with touches of post-modernism and magic realism that lend it a distinct charm. By itself, the Sun Katz thread could comfortably carry the book; its impact is not lessened one whit by the presence of the Baldino thread.

The one aspect of Sun's narrative I would take issue with is her periodic lapses into cod philosophy. Yes, it's a habit teenagers generally have, but these brief treatises on the nature of life break up the flow of the story to no obvious purpose. Chief highlight, I would say, is Sun's encounter with the clothing range whose advertising genuinely reflects its qualities.

It's in the Baldino thread that the gender issues are brought to the fore. In a world where sperm is at a premium, the most eligible fathers are housed in secure "castellations", made initially to prove their machismo in extreme sports and acts of bravado that carry the additional risk of exposure to the airborne Y-plagues, and then to parade themselves on the "Pigwalks". Meniscus is not one of these, but a clone created for medical research; however, he glimpses the world of the Aspirant Pigs when Baldino's superiors sneak one into his habitat.

Sullivan treats the gender-related aspects of Maul with, in my opinion, a very even hand. The near annihilation of the male sex has resolved some of the world's problems but raised others, and admit it or no, women still need men -- even if it is just for breeding-stock. The relations between the female medical research staff and their male test subjects are explored frankly and in depth. The Aspirant Pigs are amusingly rendered as celebrity sports jocks, while Meniscus' initially tragic character blossoms out of all recognition during the course of the novel. Female characterisation is strong throughout, particularly in the tension between no-nonsense Dr Baldino and Naomi, her slipshod research assistant.

The story overall is engaging and slips by all too quickly, racing toward an ending that, to my mind, owes much to the cheesier sci-fi films of the Seventies and Eighties. Perhaps it's just me, but in the last couple of chapters there I could suddenly imagine David Carradine playing Meniscus. Anyway. The dust settles on a denouement that isn't exactly fair, but certainly seems right, if that's at all clear.

Maul is a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written novel that stares hard down the barrel of sexual politics and happily sticks its finger in the muzzle. Highly recommended, and another firm handhold on Sullivan's upward climb as an author.

Review by John Toon.

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