Fiction Reviews

Jack Four

(2021) Neal Asher, Tor, £18.99, hrdk, xii + 431 pp, ISBN 978-1-529-04997-8


This is a hard (ish) science fiction novel from Neal Asher, set in his Polity universe, where humans are slugging it out across the galaxy with the alien prador with the added spice of a virus (Spatterjay) that makes those infected powerful and virtually immortal, but which eventually eats their brains.

You don’t need to have read a Polity universe book before to enjoy this one, because its action is pretty much self-contained and it’s easy to fill in the gaps. Plus there’s nothing too high concept here – there are fights, more fights, explosions, fights and more things blowing up, some in infinitely drawn out detail. Asher does this quite well, though 431 pages seems like a lot of book to draw out a thinnish plot in, but I suspect fans of his previous works will be happy.

The basics of the setup are that Jack Four is one of twenty clones sold to a prador king to help him dominate the trade in ‘thralling’ humans for sale and slavery. The King - who himself has been infected by the Spatterjay virus - has some mad-scientist research going on, with some unpredictable results: he’s infected a human with the virus and turned him into a barely-human monster, with distorted features, super strength and an uncontrollable temper.

Now he’s got Jack Four to contend with. The other nineteen clones are mindless and ‘thralled’ but Jack has the memories (and more) of the original Jack. This becomes obvious when he starts doing things (like not mindlessly colliding into walls) that he’s not been directed to by his new masters.

Jack has to escape the prador and their monstrous Spatterjay-infected creation, but before long he’s caught up in wider events and vows to track down the woman who sold him to the prador – Suzeal. At which point things start to get messy…

This novel might sit broadly on the same shelf as Peter F. Hamilton, Adam Roberts and Gareth Powell: it shares DNA with all of them (particularly the occasional Hamilton-like forays into science-dense description) but is tighter on the action and looser on characterisation than most. Its two main antagonists – the prador Vrasan and the human traitor Suzeal – are not exactly nuanced and character growth is mainly down to the Spatterjay monster (Marcus) gradually turning into something else. There’s probably enough here to keep Asher fans happy though, and this has a relentless narrative that never runs out of steam.

Mark Bilsborough


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