Review – The Soldier – Neal Asher

Reviewed by Philip O’Brien

And here we are, at the start of another Polity universe trilogy. For those already familiar with Neal Asher’s books we have new characters piling in whilst old favourites either get a starring role or make a quick (and sometimes otherwise) cameo appearance—Cutter, I’m looking at you! For newcomers to this author don’t let that put you off, there’s nothing here to make you feel that you’re too late to the game, and this series can be comfortably read as a standalone space opera without requiring an in-depth knowledge of what’s happened before.

The story opens with a new and exciting variant on an old threat, the civilisation-busting Jain nodes, and we’re taken off to the edge of an accretion disk full of the stuff (note: according to Wikipedia an accretion disk is a diffuse structure formed of material in orbit around a sun or other massive central body. Clearly, in Asher’s universe, the science is hard and the action is harder). The Haiman Orlandine—part human, part AI and aided by an army of full AI-controlled weapons platforms and semi-autonomous pods, has been tasked with the unenviable task of ensuring nothing gets into nor, more importantly, out of this lethal and—by some at least—highly desirable accumulation of tech. Her partner in this endeavour is Dragon, a giant alien entity with its own agenda, a good line in Delphic pronouncements and a bad habit of doing its own thing. To complicate matters Orlandine has her own plans underway which may not quite match those dictated to her by the respective leaders of the creaking-at-the-seams truce between Earth’s ruling AI and the alien Prador Kingdom…life in a hostile universe is precarious and no more so than right now.

Elsewhere, other interested parties are plotting to exploit previously discovered Jain technology, if they haven’t already done so, including a long dormant super-soldier; matters thought previously settled are quickly unravelling; the Clade—a Jain-corrupted and certifiably insane hive-mind AI—is following it’s own agenda to destroy, well, everything; added into this mix we have cyborgs, possibly psychotic and definitely badly behaved drones and stealth ships, renegades from the kingdom of the ever-vicious crab-like Prador, Spatterjay-virus mutated humans and more all thrown together in ever-increasing cycle of violence…if you think things might go badly you’re not even close to the reality here. This is one of those times where “things going badly” would be a really positive outcome, all things considered. Fortunately the Jain are long extinct and definitely out of the picture. Although there are a few unexpected occurrences which cast a long shadow of doubt over that premise…

Meanwhile, another alien being and the last of her species, the enigmatic Client, makes an unexpected—for her as well as for us—return to the scene with a justifiable grudge against both Prador and Polity, and is desperate to regain her memories, as well as those of her people; most especially those related to their ancient beginnings, billions of years in the past. Without these her survivability is definitely limited, with them the future may well be just as uncertain. But obtaining them may not be as easy as she hoped, even with a highjacked Polity weapons platform at her disposal. It turns out that librarians aren’t always willing to open the archives just because you ask nicely.

As always with Asher’s novels the narrative speeds along and the dialogue is fast and furious. This is fiction at the extreme edge of hard science yet it’s still decidedly believable, and the whole drama spins along like an out-of-control carousel, going around and around with no way off, the tension escalating everywhere, the action fast-paced and the damage rising fast. In this universe no-one is able to trust anyone or anything else, everyones motives are suspect and things steadily build towards an explosive climax, in every sense of the word.

If you’re an avid fan of the Polity universe you won’t be disappointed, and if you’re new to all of this then I truly hope you get hooked, as this is a solid example of Asher’s writing and a good, if late, introduction to his books. Plus, as already mentioned, it’s the first in a trilogy so having polished this one off in hardly any time at all, I’m now preparing to hunt down the next in the series. In the meantime, if you’re a fan of good, solid science fiction, I recommend you do the same.

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