(2016) Neal Asher, Tor, £18.99, hrdbk, 544pp, ISBN 978-0-230-75074-6
Golly gee, but really, over 540 pages told over 20 chapters? Fortunately these chapters are further sub-divided into sections told from the point of view of the main characters, all of them in the third person, apart from the first person sections devoted to Torvold Spearm, because this is his quest. Lucky for me I am a Neal Asher fan, and War Factory is just about fast moving enough to hold the attention, though it does sag slightly in the middle. Maybe this is what they call in the music industry an example of the difficult second album, or difficult second book in the trilogy, just keeping things ticking over nicely until the conclusion with book three of the 'Transformations' trilogy. Things have clearly been difficult for Asher in recent years, sadly, his wife died in 2014, and the book is dedicated to her. After the heartfelt dedication we get an unusual piece of information, nay, advice, in that, composer Steve Buick has composed an album of original music designed to enhance the reading experience, so you are advised to get yourself over to Amazon, or iTunes or some other digital music outlet and download music which uses “long, deeply, dark soundscape layers to compliment the story’s atmosphere”. I have to confess that I did not do this, as it was all a bit too techy for an IT Numpty like me, but if there is a triple album available on vinyl for book three I may give it a go.
Before the action starts we get a 'Cast of Characters' section; which includes details about 'Penny Royal' (otherwise known as the Black AI, although I always get these two names mixed up and think of her as 'Penny Black'); Thorvald Spear who was resurrected from a memory, a whole hundred years after being killed along with eight thousand other troops, all slaughtered by yes, you got it, Royal Black; Riss, an assassin drone and terror weapon who accompanies Spear on his quest for revenge; and Sverl, a former Prador (crab-like alien) now transformed by into a mixture of Prador, human and AI by Royal Black, and would like to know why. We also get a glossary of key terms explaining much of Asher’s universe, although none of that should lull the unsuspecting reader into thinking they can start reading War Factory if they haven’t read book one of the series – Dark Intelligence – first.
Basically, we are still in hunt the 'Penny Royal' mode, or hunt those who are hunting the Black AI. Spear has managed to link to Penny Royal’s discarded spine and is slowly uploading information about all the AI’s victims into his brain. Given the peace between the Prador and the Polity, Riss, cannot carry out her prime directive of killing Prador and is now working with Spear. The much-changed, Sverl, has managed to escape the clutches of Cvorn, a Prador seeking to rekindle the old war who sees Sverl as a key tool in achieving this, while Sverl seeks out Royal Black to try and understand why AI has forced this transformation upon him. Captain Blite who was travelling with Royal Black for a while in his old ship and now with a new ship, hands over two prisoners and memplants belonging to Penny Royal to something called the Brockle which might be even more of a dangerous entity than the rogue AI.
Rather like, Dracula in Bram Stoker’s novel, who totally dominates the narrative even when he isn’t present, the spectre of Penny Royal looms large over the plot, pulling several strings in the background, while managing to evade the Polity at bay enough to gain control of an attack ship to try and get to Factory Station Room 101, a wartime manufacturing space station that was the birthplace of Royal Black, long believed to be destroyed. But if it still exist, what does Royal Black want with it?
War Factory is typical Asher fare, jam-packed with action, battles, amazingly detailed new alien creatures, new characters, (and tellingly some missing characters from the first book, who surely must appear in book three), plot threads that are resolved and plot threads that remain unresolved, and some original and intriguing uses of science, why we even get a quite original use of time travel, even flashbacks to reveal some interesting plot points. All in all, despite some podginess around the middle, War Factory coasts along quite nicely towards the cliff’s edge that will be the white-knuckle ride that will be book three, Infinity Engine.
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