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Polity Agent
Neal Asher
Tor hardcover £17.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Neal Asher is really pumping them out at the moment. This year we've had The Voyage Of The Sable Keech, set in the 31st century, Prador Moon closer to home in the 24th century, and now Polity Agent, in the 25th. It is subtitled 'the fourth Cormac novel', which will come as a relief to those who have been waiting for Asher to turn his eye again to the protagonist of his first major novel, Gridlinked. The story begins immediately after the events of Brass Man. If these events have faded in your memory, there are some reminders, although those who haven't been on the Cormac bandwagon from the beginning, the occasional paragraph of synopsis may not be enough. However, the trademark introductions to each chapter will help.

The Polity is a human civilisation spread far across the galaxy, threaded together by FTL spaceships and instantaneous travel for individuals. It is controlled and maintained by AIs with a fierce sense of the justice necessary to keep zillions of humans alive and, potentially, happy. Over the course of the Cormac books Asher has done an excellent job of ramping up the threats faced by the Polity and in gradually building up Cormac and his associates to each new challenge. The use of his associates - and his enemies - as viewpoint characters is key to the success of the series. Although he is capable of moments of angst, Cormac himself is so perfectly hard-boiled that we often know just how he must react to circumstances. It also appears that Asher decided that Cormac's powers were getting ahead of events, as the author carefully misplaces a chunk of the protagonist's mind for most of this volume.

Even so, much of the book is about opening new lines of inquiry. It opens with a jump through time from the next galaxy, as a human mission flees rampant Jain technology, and it finishes with a massive cliff-hanger as there is an obvious threat in place; the biggest, quite probably, that the Polity has yet faced. In between there are new characters who are clearly significant to the future of the Polity, but who barely interact with anyone else across the course of 480 pages. The parallel storylines also allow the return of many familiar characters such as Earth Central's most senior agent, Horace Blegg. Here he is a significant viewpoint character and as the reader gains an insight into who Blegg is, from the inside, the comparison with Cormac becomes more pointed. How similar are the two?

Asher's characteristically awkward phrasing is noticeable early on in the book, but his writing gets smoother as he starts smashing up the scenery. He delights in describing vastly powerful weapons but there is also humour, which stops this becoming fetishistic. Some grand ideas have provided only minor plot points and conveniently slipped off stage. It is possible that Asher is becoming profligate, but he is also perfectly capable of letting such sleepers lie for centuries. His writing continues to get tighter and his plotting clearer.

Although Asher extricates most of his protagonists from immediate danger, there is still far too much going on for a real sense of closure. At the end of this book, the story is wide open, which gives Polity Agent the feeling of being the start, or perhaps the middle, of a trilogy. You could get away with beginning your study of the Polity here, but you won't be ready to stop reading Asher at the end of this book. That's okay - no doubt there'll be another couple along next year!
Polity Agent

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