Book cover: Windswept - Adam RakunasPadma Mehta needs to recruit 33 more people to the Union and claim the signing bonus if she’s to buy the Old Windswept distillery. When an opportunity comes by that would put her over the line, she can’t pass it up, even if it is put her way by smelly loser Vytai Bloombeck. Padma’s forgotten that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The next few days will test what she’s really willing to do to make her numbers – and save her planet.

This is a hell of a ride – you may feel as battered as its grumpy heroine by the end of the twists, turns, accelerations and nosedives – but if you finish it without a grin I’ll be surprised. Honestly, it’s worth the price of admission for irrepressible lawyer Banks and the snarky old ladies alone.

Rakunas’s prose is colourful and evocative from the get-go, much like Mehta herself. We’re dropped straight into a bar on a planet hitting hard times, and the world-building takes off on a vertical trajectory. Luckily, much of it rings familiar – hello megacorporate galactic dystopia – but it’s packaged with enough personality and vibrant points of difference to feel fresh.

Santee is a mongrel outpost that survives by producing a lot of sugar cane (in the future, power will be derived from sugar; let’s just imagine a children’s birthday party and move on, yes/yes?) and – in obvious consequence – good rum. While the Big Three megacorps have a presence, the planet is dominated by the Union and the Co-op, feisty independent operators who at some point ‘Breached’ (deserted from their Indentures to megacorporate overlords).

Several things are immediately obvious: race, gender and sexuality don’t mean a thing (hooray!), and the close-living quarters of Santee have resulted in a delightful melange of cultures illustrated by names, scenery, food and clothing. Almost everyone has some mental health issue as a consequence of their Indentures – Padma herself fights what appears to be an acute anxiety condition, her prime motivation for wanting to own the Old Windswept distillery being a nightly ritual involving a glass of it that is key to her mental health. And nobody likes their job. Living free doesn’t mean living well.

There’s plenty of commentary hidden in the snark that carries the prose from start to finish. The Big Three have no concern about minor details such as human rights when it comes to their slaves employees or their customers. The Union (Solidarity! Brother/Sisterhood! Stick it to the Big Three!) is about as coherent as any traditional communist ideal, loathed by the Freeborn kampong population and thriving on internecine politics. The introduction of a black ops squad simply takes everything one step further: whole populations murdered to further corporate aims, sometimes for the greater good (but mostly for company profit).

But don’t be distracted into thinking this is a serious science fiction sociopolitical novel. It’s screwball noir, with Padma incapacitating one unfortunate goon by essentially pulling his armoured trousers down (in a moment of slapstick comedy, he hasn’t managed to pull them up again by the time she leaves the compound, even though it’s hardly been a lightning trip). The watchword from start to finish is incendiary chaos.

Padma is a narrator cut in what is traditionally a masculine mould (and owning it. Screw you, noir heroes): hard-nosed, short-tempered, occasionally petty (her ongoing minor irritation of Walwa), ruthless in getting her own way, flexible in her definitions of law and Union, but unflinching in her refusal to let someone die. She may care more about her headcount than the job satisfaction of those she signs up, but she’s fiercely protective of their right to be free of the Big Three – and genuinely convincing when she promises to help the Freeborn caught in Saarien’s cane conspiracy.

I loved the supporting cast – mild-mannered Banks the lawyer and would-be Breach, who follows Padma through the escalating action wild-eyed yet oddly capable; Freeborn Jilly, who has her own flair for outrageous improvisation; Soni Baghram, straight-laced cop and the closest we see to a truly upright citizen, even if it means incarcerating an old friend. Even stinky losers Bloombeck and Jimney are endearing; and if Evanrute Saarien never quite steps out of his stagey super-villain shoes, it’s partly because he’s consciously working the part so hard (I never did quite decide if he was a True Believer or just supremely manipulative).

Enough flailing: I started off coasting through this with mild enthusiasm, but the second half upped the octane and the chaos well past the point where I couldn’t be swept along giggling. This is stupidly over the top and wildly entertaining. Keep a rum handy and enjoy the ride.

****

Windswept is available now, and has been nominated for the Philip K Dick Award.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.