(2014) Joel Shepherd, Pyr, £10 / Can$18 / US$16.95, trdpbk, 461pp, ISBN 978-1-61614-895-9
This is the fifth book in the Cassandra Kresnov series, the others being Crossover, Breakaway, Killswitch, and |23 Years on Fire.
I have not read any of the others, but, judging by this one, they appear to be individual stories rather than being Part 1, etc., of an overall, multi-book story arc. I would guess that reading them in the correct (presumably chronological) order might provide a touch more understanding of the characters and the overall storyline of Sandy and her colleagues, but it is not in any way necessary - this story is self-contained and any past material the reader needs to know is simply and effectively included in the narrative.
The story is set a few hundred years into the future and mankind has spread out to the stars. There is faster-than-light travel but no instantaneous communications; indeed, the fastest way to get a message to a distant planet is to put it on a spaceship and fly it there (which makes government and military communications subject to being out of date by the time they arrive). There are two powers, the Federation and the League; they fought a serious war not long ago and are now in an uneasy peace, though the League never did surrender.
Sandy 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 does not posses, it transpires that actually they are exploiting remnants left behind by an alien race, the Talee. No-one knows who or what the Talee are, only that they have left traces of their colonies; they have never been seen but are still out there somewhere and it is thought that they declined in some way, perhaps because of unanticipated problems with their technologies. However, they are building their own synthetic GIs, embedded within the GIs of the League and the Federation, and they are watching us!
As the story opens, something has gone very wrong on Droze and the League’s attempt to cover this up by nuking the planet out of existence has been thwarted by the Talee, who briefly intervened by destroying the League Warship then retreated back out of sight. Now the Mekong, a Federation Fleet Carrier, is in orbit and more are on their way. Meanwhile, down on the surface, Sandy is attempting to rescue a bunch of GIs who have rebelled and wish for the freedom of the Federation, though the League companies that created them are determined this will not happen. From the first paragraph we are catapulted into a series of intense battle scenes - and well written space opera it is too.
As well as attempting to rescue the GIs, Sandy is also trying to protect a Kiril, a local child and orphan. As if that was not enough, she is also trying to locate and rescue his elder siblings, Svetlana and her big brother Danya. How she came across these children, or why she cares about them, is not explained, but for the first time in her life a maternal instinct has kicked in and they have become very important to her. Being orphaned on Droze, in a poorly functioning society driven by harsh, uncaring corporations and local crime lords, means that the kids have had to be tough to survive - very tough. Danya (13) has become quite expert at the tactics of keeping their family safe, Svetlana (10) is more instinctive and is prepared to kill quickly and efficiently to ensure their survival, and Kiril (6) is already showing a very good grasp of medicine and technology; it also transpires that, whilst in the clutches of one of the corporations, he has been experimented on and fitted with augmentation of an advanced design.
The battle on Droze having reached its conclusion, Sandy returns to Callay, the home world of the Federation. The children are now officially 'hers' and she is finding it both interesting and somewhat challenging becoming the head of a family, particularly of such hardened yet still vulnerable children; they are, after all, still very young yet have talents and experiences well beyond those of their contemporaries. She should be settling down to an easier life but it seems that Cassandra Kresnov is never far from some problem or other.
The League have always played the long game and, despite their losses during the war, are still plotting and scheming the downfall of the Federation. They have many agents and are slowly corrupting the ways of their enemy, particularly through its politicians. Although it is not obvious to start with, changes are on the way which will result in the Federation being unable to defend itself because of the changes it is making to its own rules and regulations. Financial cutbacks can often seem like a good idea - but at what cost? As the momentum increases, Sandy and her friends realise the terrible fate that is about to engulf the Federation yet there is almost nowhere to turn to as nearly every aspect of government and of law and order has been breached. Matters rise to a climax and they are almost void of actions (legal ones, that is) that they can take - but the GIs are themselves a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Then there are complications that the League have not foreseen, not the least of which is the determination of Sandy’s new family, along with their ability to gather useful (if not damning) information and to work off the grid in unexpected ways. They may be kids, but they are Sandy Kresnov's kids! Then there is Ragi, a recently arrived synthetic person; not a GI but more 'normal'. The trouble is he does not know where he is from or who made him, or even his purpose, as he 'woke up' on a transport on its way to Callay with no memory of his past (if, that is, he even had one). Perhaps he has been seeded by the Talee or perhaps dispatched by a “renegade” League scientist wanting to make sure the League and the Federation are more evenly matched. Whatever his reason for being, he is far advanced when it comes to intelligence and the ability to deal with technology of the day; he can hack into almost anything with little effort and is, in such terms, a very effective weapon (you could send in a whole army but if he can take over their tacnet then they become of little use).
The story starts with a battle and there are more battles to come. The action is believable and remains interesting throughout as the battles are different and not mere repetitions of earlier scenes. I found myself carried along with the pace and it was difficult to put the book down during these parts of the story. It is not all battle, though, far from it! There are many domestic scenes featuring GIs and their fellow military, Sandy’s life in general, the kids and their escapades, and the goings on in other departments and organisations. The overall story is told from many perspectives, this is not just 'the further adventures of Sandy', and it makes the story all the more rounded and believable.
On picking up the book my first thought was that it was another thick (i.e. high page count) book and would be full of padding to fill all those pages - how wrong I was! There are many pages because there is much story to tell. Although the pace is sometimes quicker (the battle scenes are exciting) and sometimes gentler (the domestic arrangements of children settling into their new home) it is all interesting. The slower parts are not laboured, they are naturally slower - and make a nice rest after the hectic battles. The overall pace is nicely controlled; I did not get worn out by constant fighting nor bored by domesticity and office meetings, each balanced the other well. Throughout the story was interesting and the quieter sections were obviously the lull before the next storm, the time to find out something of the whys and wherefores of the situation, to add the reason to the story.
This book features well written, military space opera and lots of technology yet also offers a political thriller and, furthermore, is peopled with characters that have some depth to them. All-in-all, I found it well balanced and a most enjoyable read; indeed, one of the best I have read this year. I shall be looking out for more from this author!
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