(2020) Judith O'Reilly, Head of Zeus £18.99, hrdbk, 415pp, ISBN 978-1-788-54894-6
This is an out-and-out thriller with a hint of science fiction in that it centres round an AI (Artificial Intelligence). I enjoy a good thriller and this one hit the mark - difficult to put down.
It is the author’s fourth book and her second novel, both of which feature Michael North. The character was introduced in Killing State, which I have not read, though as they are both standalone novel this did not matter.
The story opens in London where Esme Sullivan Hawke is enjoying a good soak in the bath until rudely interrupted by a burglar, except that he is not really a burglar. A thug has been sent to frighten her, or to be more exact her husband Tobias Hawke, the brilliant head of the Dirkind Institute for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. Spurred on by the advice from Syd, the AI her husband has created and which monitors the house, she defends herself to the limit and her attacker is the one to die. She calls on her Uncle Ed for help - and somebody’s dastardly plan has started to unravel.
We move to Berlin and meet Michael North. His army career was cut short whilst on active duty in Afghanistan when a near-fatal shot left an un-removable bullet lodged in his brain. Ultimately his remaining days are numbered and he has developed a cavalier attitude to risk - he knows he probably has little to lose. He became an assassin for The Board, a department of which the government would deny all knowledge. In events that were the subject of Killing State, he had been assigned to assassinate a female politician who was demanding answers to all the right questions. This was against his principles and instead he sided with her. Ultimately they formed a deep relationship though it was shattered when she was assassinated by someone else. North avenged her death by killing all the members of the Board. That was a few months ago and now, still stunned by the loss of his lover, he is drinking himself to oblivion; if the bullet does not get him the alcohol will. He is approached by the cold and calculating Edmund Horne (the above mentioned Uncle Ed), head of the Friends of Cyclops, a discrete secretariat within MI5.
The deal is simple: return to London and work for Horne. Specifically, he is to protect Esme and, if he can, Tobias Hawke. Obviously whatever is going on is something that Horne wants dealt with very discretely, and doubtless violently, without his own people being in any way involved or himself implicated in any way. North is very good at his job and he is disposable. Smuggling himself back into the country, North joins up with his old friend Padraig ‘Plug’ Donne, whose official occupation is Funeral Director, and the teenage hacker Fangfang Yu, the nearest he has to family.
Introduced to the Hawkes and Dirkind, North learns of the progress the leading-edge company has made in advanced AI control systems, as well their charitable works such as giving away the design for his AI-enhanced prosthetic leg to the world. He also gets to meet Syd, which he is told is not merely an accomplished AI but which has achieved consciousness, and he learns that Tobias is about to announce it to the world at a gala evening in the British Museum. So far Syd has been air-gapped, isolated from the world with no connection to the Internet or other forms of electronic communication, but Tobias intends to soon connect it to the outside world, something with which his ethicist wife greatly disagrees.
We also get to meet General Kirkham, the bullish head of the privatised and excessively violent New Army, a cost-cutting exercise the government is beginning to regret. He reports to Ralph Rafferty, the Home Secretary, and between them they have not only been secretly bankrolling Derkind to develop autonomous fighting machines but they want Syd for themselves - and they are quite happy to silence Tobias Hawke at the same time. The game is afoot, as a certain detective might have put it.
And so the scene is set for an action adventure as North struggles to protect Esme and Tobias from unknown attackers, whilst also ensuring that Syd does not fall into the wrong hands. They also have to ensure that Syd does not connect to the outside world as, once connected, it will have full access to almost everything and the ability to control it all - but has yet to develop a moral compass. It is an inevitable race against time - and a most enjoyable one.
North is not a thinker, he is a doer who will allow nothing to stop him fulfilling his task. Fangfang is the brains of the group and Plug the very useful backup man. Along with the villains and ‘innocents’ the story has a good cast of characters; just the sort you would expect in a story like this. It is well written and rattles along at a non-stop pace. This is not an intellectual book for thinkers but it is most certainly enjoyable escapism.
Should you be able to get away on a holiday in this day and age of CoVID-19 this is a book you might well want to take with you. As it was I sat in the garden of Costa Del Home and put everything else to one side for an enjoyable break from day-to-day reality.
See also Mark's review of Curse the Day.
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