Harmonica and Gig coverThree qverse experts are hired to investigate the suspicious death of a qverse employee. There’s talk that his very brain was hacked and INTROMET matriarch Viger Singer is willing to offer a million dollar incentive (alongside a smidge of identity-revealing blackmail) in exchange for a result. Regina ‘Harmonica’ Carter – forty-something, cynical and the top of her game – is pitted against Lloyd ‘Talobos’ Hong and Felix ‘Gig’ McGuiggen, a designer-gened and paranoid hacker in his twenties. But, as their investigations continue, Harmonica and Gig begin to question the nature of the game they’ve been thrust into.

I have always loved RJ Astruc’s writing. She has the ability to draw me into stories that sit outside my usual reading tastes and to make me enjoy the kind of characters that normally I’d barely acknowledge. Her fiction combines an elegant and distinctive writing style with an ever-present sense of humour, which informs Harmonica and Gig‘s characters and universe. Although not a comedy, the novel displays a similar grasp of the quirks of human nature. Astruc is not afraid to give her characters flaws and, in doing so, allows them to break free of the usual sci-fi archetypes.

The qverse of Harmonica and Gig is well-imagined and described in such a way that its constant presence in the book’s universe feels natural from the very beginning. At times, the technological concepts discussed made my head spin a little, but this was likely due to their nature rather than any fault with their depiction. Indeed, this is a very tech-heavy novel, as the storyline would imply. Set in the near(ish) future, it combines new technology with the familiar in a surprisingly comfortable manner.

Although Harmonica and Gig employs a third person perspective, the chapters are split between Astruc’s two protagonists. Each has a distinctive personality, although this is demonstrated more through their thoughts and actions than the voice of their respective sections, allowing the writing to remain uniform throughout.

Harmonica is a fantastic character. She is strong, bold and unapologetic. Her actions are occasionally rash and she has one hell of a commitment phobia, but such characteristics are what make her so likeable. Harry’s a little bit larger than life, but she is not a caricature. And books need more female characters who are portrayed as being sexy (and sexual) beyond their twenties.

In contrast, Gig appears quite weak at first. He is young and pretty and seems out of his depth in comparison to Harry and Talobos. I, personally, didn’t find him as gripping a character as Harmonica, but grew to appreciate his different approach to the situation and to life in general. He is the perfect foil for Harry and his relative vulnerability is important in a book that deals largely in powerful and seemingly-invincible characters.

Harmonica and Gig is a wonderful sci-fi thriller but, for me, the absolute highlight of the novel is its universe. Astruc melds cultures and societies into a believable mid-twenty-first century world. Australia has become SouthAsia – a melding of Anglo and Asian peoples and cultures. The novel’s characters reflect the new racial landscape and offer an unforced glimpse into the social changes that have taken place alongside the technological changes described in the book. But Harmonica and Gig does not moralise. Indeed, its universe is refreshingly matter-of-fact.

Harmonica and Gig is an excellent novel that goes beyond its genre in presenting a storyline that is accessible to all but the most hardened of speculative fiction despisers. For those who consider themselves science fiction aficionados, it’s a must-read.

(NB: The author of this novel is a friend of mine.)