Sunday, June 26, 2011

Review: Polity Agent

Title: Polity Agent
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Agent Cormac #4
Pages: 562
ISBN: 9780330521390

From eight hundred years in the future, a runcible gate is opened into the Polity. Those now coming through it had been sent specially to take the alien 'Maker' back to its home civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud.

Once these refugees are safely through, the gate is rapidly shut down because something alien is pursuing them. The gate itself is then dumped into a nearby sun.

From those same refugees, agent Cormac learns that the Maker civilization has been destroyed by devastating alien Jain technology. This naturally raises questions: why was Dragon really sent to the Polity? And why did a Jain node suddenly end up in the hands of someone capable of wreaking the most damage with it?
Polity Agent continues on from where Brass Man left off and starts with a runcible connection being made from 800 years in the future (yes, runcibles can do that!). The team originally sent to take the Maker back to its civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud returns through this time-inconsistent runcible bearing dire news. The Maker civilization has been overrun by Jain technology. This casts doubt on both the purpose of the Dragon construct and the intentions of the Makers.

While this is happening a heretofore unknown entity called the Legate is busy distributing Jain nodes within the Polity. One of these causes an immense Jain outbreak on the planet Coloron resulting in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Cormac is called in to track down the Legate and find the source of the Jain nodes, setting events in motion that could possibly lead to the destruction of the Polity.

Most of the characters from the previous novels make a return appearance. Even Mr Crane is back for a brief, though pivotal, moment. I was particularly excited to see the return of Jack Ketch, a ship AI, and one of my favourite characters in Brass Man. He isn’t entirely Jack anymore (for reasons I won’t mention), but that just adds a new dimension to him. The unexpected kindness he shows later on in the novel is particularly moving and shows how his gruff demeanour has softened.

Horace Blegg plays a major role this time round and through various retroacts we finally get to learn more about his history. Those of you who have read the earlier novels will know that this is a huge thing. Up to this point Blegg has been an enigma wrapped in a paradox and hidden away within the event horizon of a black hole. Understanding who and what he is was always just out of reach. When it is finally revealed, the implication of Blegg’s true nature has earth shattering consequences for Cormac.

There’s an interesting cast of new characters added to the mix. Arach is a war drone who, out of boredom, volunteers to accompany Cormac. He’s almost like a hyperactive child running around looking for a fight, making him an excellent addition to the team. The other new character is Orlandine, a haiman (as close to a human and AI hybrid as possible) who takes an unexpectedly cautious approach in handling the Jain node she is given by the Legate. She starts out as an unscrupulous character, but later she seems to transform into a reluctant hero figure that might just hold the salvation of the Polity in her hands.

Polity Agent is brimful of revelations. Just like Horace Blegg’s true nature, the real purpose of the Dragon construct and the true intentions of the Makers finally come to light. Something else that left me dumbfounded is the revelation by the Atheter artefact of what its civilization gave up and ultimately became in order to survive the Jain threat. Great stuff!

There are many memorable scenes throughout the novel and Neal’s writing style and superb descriptions make it easy to visualise events. One scene that really stood out for me was during the evacuation of Coloron when the Coloron AI is described cradling a human child in his arms. You have this godlike planetary AI with the power to extinguish the lives of millions of people with a mere thought, and yet he cares enough to risk himself to save a single child. It goes to show that the AIs are often far more human than their actual human counterparts.

It is also impressive to see how events from the previous novels came together and intertwine to reveal a complex plot of a much grander scope than I could ever have imagined. It’s hard to believe that everything wasn’t planned in meticulous detail from the start, but Neal proclaims that he doesn’t really plan anything. I’ll take his word for it, but if this is what he does without much planning I’d love to see what he comes up with if he ever does start planning!

Unlike the previous novels Polilty Agent doesn’t have a self-contained ending. It’s rather used to lay the groundwork for what promises to be an all out confrontation in Line War, the final novel in the series. I can hardly wait!

The verdict:
A terrific read with all the distinctive Asher trademarks – great tech, lots of action, big guns and even bigger explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and have already started Line War. I can’t wait to see how everything turns out. A must read for any space opera fans!

Rating: 8/10

Disclosure: I won a set of Neal Asher's novels in a competition hosted by the author. This hasn't influenced my review in any way. If I hadn't won the competition I would have purchased the novels myself.

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