(2015) Joel Shepherd, Pyr, £11.99 /Can$19 / US$18, 520pp, ISBN 978-1-616-14992-5
This is the sixth book in the Cassandra Kresnov series, the others being Crossover, Breakaway, Killswitch, 23 Years on Fire and Operation Shield. I read and enjoyed the last of those and similarly I enjoyed this story. Like its predecessor, this story is self-contained and any past material the reader needs to know is simply and effectively included in the narrative.
Picking up about eighteen months after Operation Shield, Sandy Kresnov has settled into a comfortable life back on the Federation planet of Callay and is enjoying family life with her children Danya, Svetlana, and Kiril, who she adopted after her adventures on the League planet of Droze.
Sandy is no normal woman: she is a synthetic GI, an artificial person created in the laboratory-factories of the League. Like most of her type, she was designed as a soldier; she is stronger, faster, and more robust than normal humans and has a brain that was specifically designed for fighting and military tactics. She is one of the elite models, a devastatingly effective soldier who can beat a platoon of normal soldiers with dismissive ease - put her in a full, augmented suit of battle armour and she is almost invincible. Yet she is also a deeply caring person with a strong sense of right and wrong and who will fight to her last breath for what she believes in. As she gained age and experience, Sandy, like may other GIs, decided that she did not like the policies and methods of the League so changed sides and joined the Federation.
Although the League claim to have invented the technology for synthetic humans, something which the Federation opposes and does not posses, it transpires that actually they are exploiting remnants left behind by an alien race, the Talee. So far no-one knows who or what the Talee are, only that they have left traces of their colonies; they themselves have never been seen though their spacecraft do occasionally pass rapidly through “our” space. They have built their own synthetic human GIs, embedded within the GIs of the League and the Federation, in order to learn more of humans and, as required, to occasionally communicate with them.
The story opens gently with Sandy and her family watching Kiril performing in his school play but her enjoyment is soon interrupted by an urgent message on her uplinks, an immediate recall of all staff to FSA HQ. A League freighter has arrived bearing news of the destruction of their mining planet Cresta, killed by a V-strike (a large lump of rock fitted with FTL jump engines, aimed at the planet, and hitting it at two percent light speed - destruction so total that not even microbes would survive). It is known that some of the League’s more advanced uplink technology, based on Talee designs, is causing deep and widespread sociological dysfunction and it looks like the League may now be destroying itself with internal conflicts. Hardly is she airborne than her flyer comes under attack; there are already League agents at work on Callay.
Shortly afterwards FSA receive a visit from Cai, a powerful, Talee-built human GI, who has come to warn them of serious dangers ahead. He reveals to them that the Talee are a post-extinction-level-event species; their advanced use of uplinks and associated technology drove them mad and to self destruction, not once but twice, and the few survivors are determined that humanity will not suffer the same fate.
As other League agents make a nuisance of themselves with terrorist activities in the city, Sandy has another problem. Kiril's uplinks, the result of League experiments utilising the most recently discovered Talee technology, are growing when they should not even be capable of such activity. Just what had they done to him in the laboratories back on Droze? And what is the mysterious League ship that has just jumped into Callay's system, clearly being chased by two League destroyers?
Checking the passenger manifest it becomes clear: the ship is carrying Renaldo Takewashi, the League's top expert on Talee uplink technology and the creation of synthetic GIs. Once safely on Callay he reveals that years earlier he had been visited by a Talee-created human who warned him that there was one area he should never investigate: uplinks which grow by self-analysis and learning. However, the research went ahead and Kiril is one of the children who had been experimented on, who had been implanted with this technology. Now, to protect the human race from suffering their own fate, the Talee are determined to kill both Takewashi and the subjects of the experiments - and that includes Kiril. Then all hell breaks loose.
Talee-built synthetic human GIs attack the safe house and a long, hard battle ensues between these and Sandy’s friends, synthetic GIs against synthetic GIs. Once the dust settles, Sandy realises they have to find the Talee and sort out this problem once and for all, and that is not going to be easy!
This is but a taste of the action; the story is much more involved, covers much ground, and involves many others. It flows well, the various organisations (League, Federation, and Talee) feel real, and the many characters who populate the pages feel to be real, different people, not merely 'the character who does this'. As with its predecessor, the story has a nice mixture of action and battle sequences, exciting but not repetitious. These are interspersed with office meetings, discussions between characters and organisations, the domestic arrangements of Sandy's family and others, as well as the day-to-day activities that mark most people’s lives. Whilst Sandy is the main character, she is far from being always the centre of attention and the story follows the activities of many of the other characters thus providing a wider story line and a greater sense of involvement in the plot.
By mixing hard action, softer action, meetings, personal and family activities and goings-on, the story is well paced and remains interesting. Sometimes it gets exciting, sometimes it gives you a chance to relax, but always it moves the plot on. There is no feeling of padding, of writing pages simply for the sake of it. And there are surprises as the story twists and turns and we learn more of the Talee.
As with Operation Shield, this book features well written military space opera and is peopled with characters that have some depth to them. All-in-all, I found it a well balanced and most enjoyable read. Last time I said that I would be looking out for more from this author - and that still applies.
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