This one plopped through my letterbox a few weeks ago, as an unexpected freebie from the British Science Fiction Association. I must admit that I hadn't heard of this author before, but he has had several other books published with some favourable review extracts, so I decided to give it a look.
The setting is the distant future with humanity spread across many star systems by means of faster-than-light ships, but divided into two warring factions: those who believe in terraforming marginal planets to make them suitable for standard humans, and those who believe in genetically adapting humanity to survive on unmodified planets. Karl Allman is an enhanced human who crash-lands on a remote and forgotten planet, and discovers that it was settled by standard humans who were Icelandic traditionalists, attracted by its cold and bleak environment. A start had been made on terraforming the atmosphere to stabilise it at an endurable level but this had been abandoned centuries before, leaving the settlers only just able to survive in the equatorial lowlands, scattered in small farming groups. Ever since, they had been cut off from civilisation and were slipping back into a medieval way of life as their technology gradually failed and their environment deteriorated.
Allman has a difficult time understanding and coexisting with the settlers, who have a strongly feudal culture centred around the head man of each settlement. He isn't helped by having to share his brain with a knowledgeable but uncooperative artificial intelligence dubbed Loki, downloaded by his ship as a parting gift. On hearing a legend of an artificial beacon in a remote and uninhabited part of the planet, he sets out on a journey to reach it in the hope that it might enable him to place an interstellar call for help.
The first three-quarters of the story is unremittingly grim as Allman first struggles to resolve his inner conflict while working with the settlers and then tracks across a bleak wilderness, at risk from wild animals and trolls and pursued by a posse led by an angry head man. Although the SF background is always there, this part of the story has more of the flavour of a fantasy. The pace and mood change when he arrives at the beacon and discovers what it is, and the tale then becomes a tense SF drama with a spectacular, if open-ended, conclusion.
The story is well-enough written, and the complex relationships between Allman, Loki and the settlers sufficiently intriguing, to carry me through a grimness which could otherwise have become tiresome. Worth the read.