Good lord, what do I even say about this book? This is like nothing else I've ever read, in the best possible way. Ostensibly this is a novel about the rise and fall of a small town on the Martian frontier but there's a lot more going on here.
The cast of characters is enormous and each character is unique and vibrantly drawn. At turns hilarious, alarming, and sad, Ian McDonald's first published novel is a bit hard to get a grip on and impossible to label or pigeonhole. The plot moves incredibly fast and is structured very unconventionally. The first several chapters seem to be almost stand-alone character vignettes describing how the various founding members of Desolation Road happened to find their way to the town. While very entertaining, this might at first seem a bit disjointed. After a hundred or so pages of this, however, the threads start to come together and a coherent, linear plot develops.
The story is absolutely massive, spanning three generations and, as previously mentioned, a ridiculously large cast of characters. This plot structure and cast size shows up in McDonald's later work as well (River Of Gods, which, if you've not read it RUN, don't walk, to your local bookstore and get it NOW) and it's something he pulls off better than anybody in SF I've read with the possible exception of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. The difference being that McDonald pulls it off in a comparatively slim 500-odd pages versus Stephenson's 3000. Leaving the character achievements aside, the craftsmanship alone is very impressive.
This novel showcases the potential that really great SF has to take you places you never expected and show you wondrous events and people. Wondrous in the sense of a PT Barnum Side Show (which Desolation Road also has, the side show) or a really elegant physics concept explained for the layman.
I can't really describe anything more of the characters or story without having it come across as trite or pulpy trash so I'll just shut up because if the above hasn't convinced to at least get this from the library and give it a shot then nothing more I can say will do the job.
This is HIGHLY recommended for anybody looking for something completely different than anything they've read before. Out of control escapism at it's finest.