Neal Asher is a UK writer, and one of the stars of large scale, semi-military Space Opera. He's got 15 Novels plus some collections to his name as this is written – his latest (The Departure) is due out in September 2011. Hilldiggers is the 2nd book in his loosely connected Polity sequence, which itself is loosely connected to all the other books he's written in the Polity universe. It can happily be read on its own – whilst the 1st book in the series (Prador Moon) has loads of drive and oomph (and not too much depth, it has to be said) it is by no means necessary to have read it to understand Hilldiggers. Having read some of the early Agent Cormac stuff might actually provide more background, but again this is not essential.
Hilldiggers plays in a system with two habitable planets (Sudoria and Brumal), settled by humans, and which has seen continuous war ever since – hot war when the orbits of the planets coincide, with recovery/preparations in-between. So when an alien artefact (termed 'The Worm') is discovered, attacked, broken into 4 pieces, imprisoned, and studied by the Sudorians they gain access to Gravtech weapons, and the huge Hilldigger ships they build based on this discovery end the war, at the cost of near-genocide on part of the Brumallians.
The book itself follows the fortunes of quadruplets which were conceived on the Corisanthe Main station (where the worm is being held and studied) and their unnaturally-fast raise through Sudorian society into positions of power; and the events following the initial contact of this society with the Polity and its Consul Assessor.
The book is told in short chapters, each of them following one of the protagonists – usually that's Mc Crooger (the Polity Consul Assessor), or one of the quadruplets. Mc Crooger is written in 1st person, the others in 3rd person. The overall effect of this is quite weird – to me it indicated that, clearly, the Polity has more surveillance in the system than they're letting on...
These chapters are interspersed with 'Retroacts', mainly to show the history of the quadruplets, plus an initial one from Tigger, a Polity surveillance drone (apparently the only one in the system. Right.) providing the initial info dump to kick the story off to a running start.
The book itself I found rather distasteful – it displays humans (however modified and different from us they are) doing what they do best: being self-centred, irrational, cruel, (self-)distructive, ignoring common interest and common decency. Alient artefacts etc are just an excuse. Sudoria especially is a mess, and I'm really not sure at times why the Polity would want this unredeemable mess to be part of it. Brumal is slightly better – there seems to be some common sense along the hive-like, consensus-driven society, and I also found their bio-tech driven culture much more interesting (how very Avatar in setting, though ...).
Overall this book didn't impress me overly. It's not a 'bad' book, there is nothing I really could point my finger at, but it left me cold and disengaged, somehow. The characters are not overly complex and don't show much development, the plot is a bit simple and predictable, the twists not really shocking, surprising, or story-changing. It's just, kinda, meh. Not even the battle scenes have the flair I usually associate with Asher.
This is not really a turkey, that would be too strong. But definitely not a high point, either. If you want to start with Asher then I'd still recommend the Spatterjay series (The Skinner etc), which I found much more enjoyable.
More Neal Asher
Series Number: 2
Author: Neal Asher
Reviewer: Markus Thierstein
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Tor/Pan Macmillan
Publisher URL: http://www.panmacmillan.com
Publication Date: 2007
Review Date: 110409
Price: UKP 17.99
Topic: Space Opera