Sunday 23 July 2017

Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War, by Neal Asher

These are the third, fourth and fifth (and evidently last) books in the author's Agent Cormac series to be reviewed on this blog (Gridlinked and The Line of Polity being the other two) although the chronology of Asher's novels is more complex than this suggests. Of his nineteen novels so far, fifteen are set in his far-future Polity universe, which has similarities to Iain M Banks's Culture – including an IA-governed interstellar civilisation with vast, highly intelligent spaceships which give themselves idiosyncratic names. Only five of the fifteen novels feature Ian Cormac, the formidable agent of Earth Central Security. However, nine other novels are set in the Polity (plus several short stories) but without Cormac; two of these are set before the first Cormac story, the other seven are later, of which six form two trilogies (Spatterjay and Transformation). The order in which these were written bears no relationship to their Polity chronology or which series they belong to. So readers who enjoy debating whether such a collection of tales should be read in their order of writing or in accordance with their internal chronology are now faced with an additional pair of options: to read them one series at a time, and if so either in order of writing or by their internal chronology within each series (which is, on balance, my preference). I hope all is now clear!

With that settled, let's turn to Brass Man. This follows on directly from The Line of Polity, being essentially a continuation of the same story, so it is highly desirable to read them in order. The novel begins with various parallel plot threads as is usual for this author, but complicates matters considerably by also throwing in flashback scenes set at various times in the past. The structure of the book is therefore headachingly complex, leaving the reader to try to work out when as well as where each sequence fits into the story. Asher does provide some helpful props in the form of mini-infodumps scattered through the early part of the book, but they are really to refresh the memory of those who have already read the previous book; anyone who hasn't will be left floundering.

Another unusual aspect of this story is that Asher evidently liked some of his earlier bad-guy characters so much that he decided to bring them back to life after seemingly finishing them off in the previous book. I can't help a vague feeling that this is cheating in some way and if I were Ian Cormac I would be feeling rather exasperated. However, Cormac does have a lot of other things to worry about, in fact the author enjoys placing his heroes in seemingly impossible situations before arranging their escape – usually. It won't really be a spoiler to reveal that the redoubtable Cormac survives every misfortune, since he was obviously contractually obliged to appear in another two books.

Polity Agent follows immediately on from Brass Man, so as with my comment above, reading these books in the right order is essential. The author makes no concessions at all to readers who might pick up this volume as their visit visit to the Polity – they will be completely lost from start to finish. The structure this time is simpler, but the downside is that there is less variety in the drama. A new enemy is introduced – a rogue AI – and the emphasis is much more on military SF, in the space-opera tradition of grand starship fleets clashing; somewhat reminiscent of Jack Campbell. This extract will give something of the flavour of the descriptive writing: if you like it, you'll probably enjoy the book; if not, not:

Definitely one of the newest designs: attack-ship configuration with a state-of-the-art chameleonware hull which, as well as being able to bend low intensity EM radiation around it, could also, to some degree, deflect high-powered lasers and masers. The outer skin was a form of polymerized diamond, over layered composite laced with super-conductors. The ship's skeleton, composed of the usual laminated tungsten ceramal, shock-absorbing foamed alloys and woven diamond monofilament, in this case was cellular and more substantial than usual. Cormac also knew that its extra weapons nacelle contained gravtech armament in addition to the usual lethal complement housed in the other two nacelles.

From my viewpoint, rather more putdownable than the earlier books, but still an entertaining read, as long as you've enjoyed the earlier novels in the series.

The final book in this series, Line War, is more of the same and follows straight on; this series is effectively one 2,500+ page story. Cormac masters a new power, which he needs to survive the deadliest threat yet, and he also acquires some strange new allies – among them, those who had been enemies in the past. The story is intensely action-focused with a rather cinematic feel; the author is good at projecting images into the readers' minds. As usual, concentration is needed to keep up with everything that is going on, as the viewpoint constantly switches between several different characters. The ending is satisfying, wrapping everything up quite tidily.

In the first paragraph I compared the Polity and Culture universes; in a nutshell, Asher's writing style could be considered a rocket-boosted version of Banks's, with a faster action and less of the whimsical meandering. This is not a criticism of either – I enjoy the work of both authors who have produced good quality space opera – and which I prefer depends on the mood I'm in.