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Book Review: Dark Intelligence, by Neal Asher

A space opera full of genocide, mayhem, and vengeance.


Dark Intelligence

Night Shade Books, 2015, 416 pages



One man will transcend death to seek vengeance. One woman will transform herself to gain power. And no one will emerge unscathed....

Thorvald Spear wakes in a hospital to find he's been brought back from the dead. What's more, he died in a human vs. alien war that ended a century ago. Spear had been trapped on a world surrounded by hostile Prador forces, but Penny Royal, the AI inside the rescue ship sent to provide backup, turned rogue, annihilating friendly forces in a frenzy of destruction and killing Spear. One hundred years later the AI is still on the loose, and Spear vows for revenge at any cost.

Isobel Satomi ran a successful crime syndicate, but after competitors attacked she needed power and protection. Negotiating with Penny Royal, she got more than she bargained for: Turning part-AI herself gave Isobel frightening power, but the upgrades hid a horrifying secret, and the dark AI triggered a transformation that has been turning her into something far from human….

Spear hires Isobel to track Penny Royal across worlds to its last known whereabouts. But he cheats her in the process and quickly finds himself in her crosshairs. As Isobel continues to evolve into a monstrous predator, it's clear her rage will eventually win out over reason. Will Spear finish his hunt before he himself becomes the hunted?

Dark Intelligence is the explosive first novel in a brand new trilogy from military SF master Neal Asher and a new chapter in his epic Polity universe.




Neal Asher's Polity series apparently has a large following, but the description left me not particularly interested. However, I decided to give the first book in the latest series, which apparently starts a new sequence following the previous "Prador War," a try.

Dark Intelligence is grimdark space opera full of big ideas: deadly AIs, planet-busting spaceships, ancient alien civilizations, hellaciously destructive weapons, obsessive main characters, and grotesque violence. It reminded me a great deal of the work of Asher's fellow Brit space opera authors, Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds, but with a lot more gore and Gigeresque aliens and robots, black and glistening and bristling with sharp pointy appendages and slicing apparatus.

The main protagonist (but one of several POV characters), Thorvald Spear, wakes up after being "dead" for a hundred years. His last memory was of being a soldier captured by a nasty alien race called the Prador, who were at war with the human Polity. Asher's previous books in the Polity series covered the war against the Prador, and there are many references to events and characters that evidently appeared there first. I didn't find it too hard to figure out what's going on, since the Prador are standard-issue genocidal Bug-Eyed Monsters who torture and eat their enemies. In the tradition of such alien enemies from the Kzinti to the Gorn, they became a little more civilized after getting their asses kicked by mankind, and now the Prador and the Polity are more or less at peace, which doesn't mean most Prador won't kill any humans they can get their claws on on backwater worlds out of the Polity's sight.

Thorvald's grievance is not against his old enemy the Prador - it's against a "black AI" that controlled a Polity destroyer that turned on his troops on the planet where he was fighting the Prador. When he wakes up, he learns that the AI, Penny Royal, is still around, still a fugitive from Polity justice, and causing trouble all over the galaxy. So, conveniently rich thanks to a century of back pay and pensions with interest, he sets off on a mission of vengeance against a superhuman artificial intelligence that is a master of Xanatos Gambits.

Spear isn't the only one after Penny Royal. There's also a psychopathic crime boss named Isobel Satomi, who was granted "upgrades" from Penny Royal and learned that the AI is like a genie that might grant your wish, but you usually won't like the results. There is also a Prador leader, similarly modified by Penny Royal, who wants to track it down to get some questions answered.

They all end up meeting along with several other secondary characters at a planet called Masada, in a big bloody showdown.

Penny Royal appears to be the real main character of this series. The mystery for much of the book was what Penny Royal was up to. Is it evil, insane, or playing some long game?

Along the way, though, there is lots and lots of evisceration, dismemberment, heads blown off, people being eaten or transformed into monstrous H.R. Giger-like things, and AIs threatening and trash-talking each other and every life form they meet.

It was reasonably entertaining, but like a lot of British science fiction, I found all the twists and turns and big reveals were not really things I cared about. The characters, from Thorvald Spear to Isobel Satomi to Penny Royal, were flat, with a very limited personality range. There is lots of combat and some epic battle scenes, but I could not bring myself to be interested in how all these big events are going to change the galaxy in the same way that I am interested in the Expanse universe, because the characters are pretty much just weapons platforms. I might pick up another Neal Asher book at some point, but this one didn't leave a strong impression. 6/10.






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