Neal Asher is a British writer of large-scale high-octane Space Opera - if you are looking for horrific alien biology or simply a bigger kaboom then you cannot go much wrong with his stories. War Factory, the first book he publishes after the death of his wife (he stopped writing for a while) is the 2nd volume in the Transformation series, which follows an Artificial Intelligence which has gone ‘dark’ - translate this as mad, or unknowable, if you wish. It is set in his Polity universe (I count 13 novels and one short story collection in this so far).
The book starts with potted descriptions and background of the main characters, and a glossary of the main concepts and history of the Polity universe, inasmuch as it pertains to the story at hand. There are also a few further information dumps within the story, too. I did not really feel that this was conceived as a jumping-on point for the series (hey, it’s only the second book, ok?), but more as an anchor for the reader in the series and the world it plays it, given the substantial body of work this is by now!
There also appears to exist a record by composer Steve Baik (evokescape.com) inspired by the story, and apparently available via Amazon or iTunes. I have not heard it, so cannot comment on enjoyability, or suitability for listening to whilst reading the book!
We start more or less where the first book in the series, Dark Intelligence, let off:
Penny Royal is back on the run after its short ‘official’ sting on Masada. It’s unclear if it’s up to more of its tricks, or making amends and fixing things it broke in its previous career. It is definitely pulling a lot of strings, mostly behind the scenes…
Thorvald Spear is now linked to Penny Royal’s discarded spine, which seems to contain recordings of a lot of Penny Royal’s victims, which are uploading to Thorvald’s brain one by one. He is still on the his mission to chase Penny Royal down and kill it, somehow.
Riss, the assassin drone/terror weapon from the Prador war 100 years hence is travelling with Thorvald. It is looking for meaning in its life, given that the war is over and it cannot fulfil its sole target in life and kill Prador anymore.
Sverl, the Prador who was so hugely changed by Penny Royal when it turned him into an amalgam of Prador, Human, and AI, is on the run from the Prador Cvorn who wants to kill him, but is himself chasing Penny Royal, looking for his own resolution.
Cvorn, for his part, is planning to re-ignite the war between the Prador and Humans/AI, and is chasing Sverl who he sees as the perfect tool to achieve this.
And Captain Blite, who still travels with Penny Royal as his ‘passenger’ (ie without any control over his ship or his destiny) has now a new ship, incorporating a top of the line Polity war ship which Penny Royal took over.
The story is told in chapters of greatly varying length, headed by the name of the main protagonist in the thread that is being told. All of those are written in the 3rd person, except for Thorvald Spear, whose entries are told in the 1st (and does this make him the key protagonist here?).
There is a good number of threads which Asher (and Penny Royal) weave here. And it’s not like they advance towards the final eclat in unison; some are conspicuously absent for extended amounts of time and pages.
One thing which I found unusual for Asher in this book was that the pace was sagging a bit in the middle, that the story felt like it had some length. There is a bit too much to-ing and fro-ing, and we get some sub-threads which don’t seem to add anything, and could have been omitted in my opinion (for example the Shell People - I liked them when they were harmless nutters, and I did not think that they added all that much to the story). Given the number of threads being woven, and the number of actors involved I felt like we were heading into the build-up for the final action scene when I was barely 1/3rd into the book. And don’t get me started on the detour into time travel…
I was actually wondering at points if this was conceived as two books, and shoehorned into one instead to close off the story arc?
One thing which makes this book special is that we are learning rather a lot about Prador society, family groups, procreation, and physiology. Clearly Asher has found another subject of horrific ‘natural’ observation to g(l)ory in, like he did with Spatterjay (which _was_ rather grand; I’m not fully convinced about the Prador just yet).
The amount of self-service, backstabbing, and mean-spirited activity in the Prador environments is truly amazing - it struck me as nearly human, albeit based on a rather different physiology, which allows different goryness. Maybe more free-thinking it its horribleness?
Penny Royal, as the nominal focus and key character of the series is conspicuously absent from a lot of the story here. Or, rather, it is pulling endless amounts of stings and is orchestrating the whole dance but without really appearing as an acting character very much.
But madness continues to run in the series - now we have another insane/damaged Golem (calling himself Mr Grey), and another damaged, powerful, and deeply scary AI called The Brockle. Sanity wil not prevail just yet...
But either way, this book, in contrast to earlier ones, provides a major censure in the story arc and its extant threads and protagonists. Still, it leaves more than enough of them in play for more of this, even if I was wondering for a while if I was looking at the final book in the series, as he was tying up an awful lot of open threads here.
There seems to be no ETA yet for the next book in the series, though.
But if you enjoy Asher, or large-scale Space Opera with big Aliens, bigger Ships, and the occasional huge battle then you're in for a treat here.
Title: War Factory
Series Number: 2
Author: Neal Asher
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Pan MacMillan
Publisher URL: http://www.panmacmillan.com
Publication Date: May 2016
Review Date: 160425
Topic: Space Opera
Topic: Artificial Intelligence