(2008) Neal Asher, Tor UK, £17.99, hrdbk, 503pp, ISBN 978-1-4050-5501-7
Line War is the final tale in a sequence of stories involving Ian Cormac, set in Asher's 'Polity' universe, although I doubt that this is the last we'll see of either. But this is the first obstacle with the story that confronts you; Asher's universe is so steeped with background that those new to the sequence will struggle. As a grand culmination of the events of the sequence, Line War brings together a host of characters and plot threads that stretch across several of his books (including non-Cormac novels). Unfortunately, without having read the prior novels, you may have some catching up to do.
As a quick summary of events up until now: Asher's Polity, a society where humans are ruled by AIs, has suffered a devastating strike on its forces by a merged AI-entity named Erebus utilising advanced Jain technology. Still reeling from the first wave, Polity forces brace for the next, only to find Erebus' ships attacking seemingly random worlds along the Line of Polity. Whilst the Polity AIs try to make sense of Erebus' apparent lack of strategy, Agent Ian Cormac is despatched to investigate a bizarre attack on a planet with no tactical significance in order to gain an insight into Erebus' thinking. Meanwhile, a selection of highly capable, but extremely dangerous, individuals within the Polity are drawn into the conflict by a third party, all with the intent of enacting their revenge upon Erebus. But, as Cormac becomes more suspicious of his AI masters, it is the massive entity Dragon that reveals the true nature of this war.
The novel begins rather clunkily, not least because of the amount of backstory Asher has to cover. Despite starting with a bang (literally), the action takes its time to build up. But then, Cormac seems to have very little to do; for an elite Polity agent, he runs around aimlessly an awful lot. It's not until much later in the plot that he becomes a prime mover in events. Instead, the key points of interest are the Golem (read 'android') Mr Crane, and Orlandine whose mastery of the dangerous Jain technology makes her the Polity's Public Enemy Number One. Following their stories is far more engrossing, and these are filled with much more suspense, pace and humour. There's plenty more intrigue to keep the story moving. As we delve further into Erebus' origins, conspiracy after conspiracy begin to unravel and Cormac's suspicions are justified. There are double-crosses and ulterior motives, but most of these are fairly transparent. Even if you don't see them coming, they're still hardly a surprise when they do. Before long it's a race to reach the end and to see events played out, rather than waiting for a shock.
The novel ends with far more ceremony than it begins, but getting there is a struggle. So much information needs to be taken in along the way that it's easy to lose track. On the other hand, most of the characters are pretty two-dimensional, so one does not question their motives. Asher's very brutal and fast-paced style comes to the fore in the latter part of the book, but it is its opening that suffers. As a finale it suffices, but I would not call this his strongest effort.
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