Book review: Stringers by Chris Panatier

(cover image courtesy Angry Robot Books)

ARC courtesy Chris Panatier – release date 12 April 2022.

Release the dung beetles of imagination my friends!

Never heard of them? Well, that won’t be a problem once Chris Panatier is done with you via the mad, manic and hilariously affecting delights of his second novel, Stringers, which spends a lot of time, a brain-addling, what-glorious-madness-is-this time, talking about bug sex, old timepieces and a Chime which may or may not spell doom for the entire galaxy.

Oh, and did we mention stoners and a jar of pickles because they are happily there too in a sci-fi novel which ramps up the imagination level to 160,000 percent (trust us, it’s a lot) and doesn’t let up to the final, eminently satisfying last page.

If you have ever wondered if there is anything new under the sci-fi fun, or at least adjacent to it, assuming you can see it around the big shape-shifting aliens, then Stringers is here with a bold and emphatic “Hell yeah!” that leaves you in no doubt that Panatier is a singularly talented man with some welcomingly weird and unique perspectives on life, both here, and well, let’s just say, NOT.

One of the key things that makes his follow-up to his thoughtfully engaging debut The Phlebotomist so appealing is that, much like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Panatier places an ostensibly ordinary person right in the thick of the action.

“My hands shook and my teeth chattered all the way back to the enclosure. Seeing the memory of another human being played before me like a home movie was terrifying. I was a trespasser to someone else’s sacred moments. An interloper of nostalgia.” (P. 170)

We say “ostensibly” because just like Arthur Dent – but also nothing like him because there’s nothing even remotely derivative about Stringers – Ben is a pretty normal guy who works in a fishing shop tying lures whose main form of social interaction is his bestie Patton, a stoner who has the proverbial heart of gold which comes in handy later in the book when that particular aortic function is needed in ways you won’t even see coming.

What sets Ben apart, though no one but Patton knows this, is that his head is full of all kinds of entomological and horological knowledge that has simply popped into his head in great and intense detail almost from the moment he was born.

Without Googling a damn thing or lifting a finger to open an old-fashioned encyclopedia, Ben knows all kinds of things he shouldn’t, a veritable treasure trove of faunal facts in particular that populate the footnotes in the Ben-centric chapters of the book that are almost as entertaining as the words above them (and yes, as Panatier, enjoins you to, you must read the footnotes; there can be no debate on that point).

Quite why that remarkable roster of facts are there must be left to the reading but suffice to say, you will not be disappointed to find out why it is that Ben knows so much and why an intergalactic bounty hunter is willing to brave the fetid confines of a chat room to kidnap him and raffle him off to the highest extraterrestrial bidder.

Chris Panatier (image courtesy Angry Robot Books)

The sheer inventive delight of Stringers is that way it weaves in some truly fantastical elements that are equal parts laugh out loud funny and terrifyingly scary with a propulsive narrative that doesn’t let up for a second.

The thing that impresses is that for all the full speed ahead, pedal to the spaceship metal that fills Stringers to giddy inducing bursting point, there’s a huge amount of emotional resonance to be had too.

In amongst the witty remarks and salient quips, the desperate inventing of cutting-edge spaceship engines and plans to save the world, the galaxy and more, are some truly affecting character moments that come as a direct result of Panatier investing a huge amount of time in letting Ben and Patton, and an immensely clever (and funny) collection of people who fall into his orbit such as the consummately talented Naecia (or does he fall into theirs? Either way, they come to need each other, bounty hunter aside), breathe and becoming fully, leaping-off-the-page alive.

There might be a great deal of silliness in Stringers but there’s also a tremendous amount of raw humanity too, which mean you will be both laughing your head off – there’s likely a bug who does that; just ask Ben – and getting all the feels especially at the end which has a real Donna Noble vibe going on.

“These were very different people, except for one distinct similarity. They shared an imprint with each other – and with me. They knew about the Chime and the Note of Jecca. Both were plenty obsessed with them, and both out in hours in libraries trying to understand the things haunting their minds. They never got anywhere, of course. Having comes years before me, neither had the internet – which explained why I was the one picked up by a bounty hunter.” (P. 182)

Thus, you get your riotously over the top comedy-laced race through the universe, pick and choose a planet and a dimension of your choosing, but you also get your heart well and truly engaged, something that matters a great deal in a book such as Stringers which knows its way around ribald jokes, irreverent conversations about knowledge and aliens with some major relational issues, but which would be all the poorer for only being funny (not I suspect, an issue with someone as seriously hilarious as Panatier).

Don’t get us wrong – in and of itself the humour in this novel is everything – artfully clever, perfectly judged and timed to perfection; but it comes alive all the more because it is borne from vibrant, fully-realised characterisation and a narrative that springs in its emotional intensity and impact from the way the characters react to some life-changing, reality-bending revelations.

If you have ever wondered whether there is any real off-the-charts original imaginative storytelling left in novels, and frankly where you have been since there is plainly lots (we are in a golden period of authors breaking all the genre rules and more power to them), then Stringers reassuringly and without apologies shouts “YES!” from the top of an immense spire in a city the size of a moon (again, this will make much more sense later).

Throughout Stringers, with its wacky, brilliantly wonderful, healthy dose of imaginatively ladled-out bug facts, Panatier adds real heart and soul, an offbeat way of looking at life that you will heartily embrace, and then some, and a story so breathtakingly different and unique that you will wonder if you are fit for any subsequent stories set in space.

Of course, the answer will be yes, but in the meantime, wallow and glory in the vividly unusual and expansively rich and funny delights of Stringers, a novel which takes an inspired premise, runs with it, very humorously we should add, and offers up a story that is so out of this world and yet so groundedly human that you will need a jar of pickles, backward text and hilariously informative footnotes just to deal with it, and deal with you shall in ways that will make you wonder how you ever lived without this gem of a novel.

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