Marcher by Chris Beckett

Cosmos Books, 2008, 304 p.

A drug called slip allows people, shifters, to move between parallel universes – which are arranged in a tree shape. Charles Bowen is an immigration officer in a universe (not ours) where his main job is to deal with shifters in an effort to eradicate the problem they represent. Here the poor and unemployed are kept in sink estates known as Social Inclusion Zones from which it is difficult to break free. Unusually, and all the more welcome for it, the main setting for the novel is the Bristol area. Bowen likes to think of himself as a guardian of the borders – between universes in his case – the “Marcher” of the title. He is himself attracted to shifting without at first quite knowing why.

Shifters are treated as criminals because they can do what they like and then evade capture by shifting. To be fair some of them follow the cult of Dunner, based on Norse mythology, and are dedicated to mayhem. These misfits commit a massacre in Clifton which allows the government to crack down hard on Social Inclusion Zones and any shifters – cultees or not – who are captured.

In the chapters written (in first person) from Bowen’s viewpoint his relationship with a social worker called Jazamine and his part in her shifting are treated as haunting him but the relationship itself is only portrayed at its beginning, its end (her shift) and otherwise in snapshots. Other sections are written in third person but as narrated by Bowen.

The proof-reading is at times inadequate. At various points a word required to make complete sense of the sentence is missing, “He was (a) decent man,” “He looked as if he’d (be) more comfortable,” “But (it) was hard to turn away,” and there are places where the author has clearly changed one part of a phrase or sentence but not another where sense requires it, “I’ve never understand this bit,” “Carl that he had always known that acts of courage would lead to something new,” “he had been moved him to another high security unit.”

Beckett’s previous book The Holy Machine was a treat despite suffering from the same issue with words missing. Marcher is less focused and also has too much telling rather than showing plus some not too well integrated info-dumping. His latest novel, Dark Eden, has been nominated for this year’s BSFA Award.

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