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The Race

The Race by Nina Allan | Publisher: Titan Books | Publication Date: July 19, 2016

The Race-TitanCover

On a Monday in May of this year, a North Yorkshire County Council approved a proposal by an energy company to frack a well in a village in Ryedale. It is the first time a shale gas company has been given the go-ahead since a cessation of this activity was lifted by the British coalition government in 2012. Hugely controversial, to say the least. Environmentalists were up in arms, claiming untold damage would be done to heritage sites, and that leakage of natural gas from drilling would pollute the atmosphere with methane. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Nina Allan’s debut novel, The Race, begins in what appears to be a dystopian future set in the aftermath of a fracking free-for-all. Not only that, war has caused the death of a million people, leaving cities in the North of Great Britain especially nothing more than wastelands. There are only villages now, struggling to survive climate change and organised crime. In the village where Jenna Hoolman lives, Sapphire, money is made by racing genetically enhanced greyhounds – known as smartdogs – and the biggest event of the calendar is the Delawarr Triple. Jenna’s brother, Del, has to fix the race so his own smartdog, Limlasker, can win. He has a debt to pay off; if he doesn’t he’ll never see his kidnapped daughter Lumey again. The smartdogs work in tandem with their “runners” – empaths who can communicate with their charges in ways that don’t require words as much as feelings. This is a very intriguing way to begin a novel, and you could be right to conclude that the race of the novel’s title is a combination of the Delawarr Triple and your standard race-against-time to locate and save a missing child.

But you could also be very wrong.

The second part of the book disregards the cliffhanger ending of the first. In fact, Jenn’s story seems to be the creation of Christy Peller, the protagonist of her own section of The Race, and a writer who shows plenty of promise for the future. Her brother is called Derek, a not too dissimilar character to Del, and a nasty piece of work in his own right. One particular scene will make your heart break for Christy. You’ll know it when you read it. Derek has had a succession of girlfriends, none of whom have stayed long enough with him, but all of whom have disappeared. Christy is concerned when one of them, Monica, with whom she’s gotten close to, seems to have vanished from existence. You could be right to conclude that the race of the book’s title refers to Christy’s attempts to get to the truth.

But you could also be very wrong.

The third part of the book catches up with Alex, Monica’s former boyfriend, a young black man who, in the wake of their break-up, leaves England to become a war correspondent in Sierra Leone. Following a traumatic experience in Africa, he returns to England where he once again has to deal with memories of racial hatred from his time growing up. He is much older now, and is separated from his wife and daughter. Christy asks to see him and she puts forward her theory that her brother may have murdered Monica all those years ago. You could be right to conclude that the race of the book’s title refers to racial hatred and inequality and one man’s attempt to make his own mark in a world that disparages him for the color of his skin.

But you could also be very wrong.

Author Nina Allan

Author Nina Allan

The fourth part is a flip back to the first, featuring Maree, who was fostered by an organisation that wanted to cultivate her naturally born (as opposed to implanted) empathic skills. She is travelling by ship across the Atlantic Ocean to a place called Brock Island, where she will continue her training in a military camp. She meets a motley crew of characters that shape both her personal and physical journey. One of them, Lin, a disfigured former fighter-pilot, becomes her confidante and lover. Another, Dodie, a middle-aged scatterbrain and gossip-monger, takes a liking to Maree and they share many conversations on the journey about life on Brock Island and elsewhere. When the ship is attacked by baer-whales, the story takes a surreal turn when one of the passengers sacrifices his own life so the ship can make its escape. I say “surreal” because Maree uses her empathic powers to seek commune with the baer-whales and what she finds is more than she can understand. Yet another passenger, the mysterious Nestor, urges Maree not to continue her training but to leave with him once they embark on Brock Island. You could be right to conclude that the race of the book’s title is Maree’s flight from the grasp of her mentors.

But you could also be very wrong.

The novel finishes with a short story also written by Christy Peller, called Brock Island, in which an older Maree returns for the wake and funeral of her old friend Dodie. She meets Duncan, the old woman’s son, who pretty much owns Brock Island now, and isn’t popular with the islanders because his beautiful artist wife Laura went missing without a trace some years back. Christy does some research of her own and reads that Laura believed she had a twin. When it was proved that she was an only child, Laura became convinced her sister lived in another Earth, one parallel to our own. Yet another race to the truth for Christy, perhaps? Maybe.

Nina Allan’s novel was first published in 2014, when it was generally praised and won a couple of awards. Allan has since expanded her original text, and this is the one Titan Books has published. It is a remarkable work, one that has sat with me since I finished it. Whether or not you can truly call it science fiction depends on whether or not you can take for granted that the first and fourth parts of the book are actual occurrences or just products of Christy Peller’s creative talents. But the themes of loss, longing, belonging, and personal identity run through the entire novel. Standard genre tropes of parallel universes, alien code, possible interstellar travel, and government conspiracies are peppered nicely throughout the sections, but it’s the journey each character makes in their own sections that made me want to read more. The fantastical runs alongside the mundane, and the mixture works because of Allan’s power with words and turn of phrase. Her settings are believable, and her leading ladies are deeply complex individuals – flawed, but not in the way that you’d think. They want more than what they have, yet will settle for the status quo if that’s all there is on offer.

Nina Allan’s The Race is full of mystery and poignancy. You’ll get no pat answers here, but if you’re looking for book that will make you think about who you are, about your place in the world (or worlds), and about what it’s like to love and lose, I can say with hand on heart, please read this. It’s got more beauty in it than anything else you’ll pick up this year.

The Race
  • 10/10
    Characters - 10/10
  • 9/10
    Setting - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Action - 9/10
  • 9/10
    Pace - 9/10


Characters: For me, any book is only as strong as its leading character. The Race has Jenna, Christy, Alex, and Maree – all finely detailed characters, each existing in world of their own.

Setting: Allan has created two worlds that seeming run in parallel to the other. Both are singular to each character, with very little information given about what’s happening outside of their location. For the uninitiated this could be a source of frustration, but there is enough going on in each “universe” to keep the keen reader enthralled.

Action: The Delawarr Triple and its tragic consequences, coupled with the frenzied encounter with the baer-whales, are the two standouts of a book that doesn’t need constant set-pieces to make its point heard. It’s a suspenseful novel nevertheless.

Pace: The Race is the kind of book you can read in a handful of sittings, but for me, I preferred to read each section, take a day to think about what I read, then venture into the next one with a different mind-set. The characters are easy to ride along with.

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About James McShane (97 Articles)
James McShane is Irish, and damn proud of it. A recovering caffeine addict, he lives a full life, devoted to his books, friends, family, and Doctor Who calendar collection. His interests include reading three books at once, stalking his favourite people on Facebook, and going for long walks at four in the morning. Insomnia is a bitch. He hopes to be a published author one day, so he should really get around to finishing that damn novel of his.
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