Wednesday 15 July 2009

Book review: Shadow of the Scorpion

Shadow of the Scorpion

By Neal Asher

(Tor, 3 April 2009)

While fantasy novels make up the bulk of my reading, I do like to dip my toes into SF now and again. Over the last few months I'd received no less than three Neal Asher books - an ARC of Orbus, a MMPB of Line War and a nice shiny hardback of Shadow of the Scorpion. My initial interest in each quickly wavered when I realised that all were part of various different series, and I was reluctant to just jump in without any prior knowledge of Asher's books.

By chance, I happened to stumble across Gav's review of Shadow of the Scorpion over at NextRead, and learned that this novel was actually a prequel to the other novels in the Agent Cormac Series. Deciding that this was probably as good a place as any to leap into Asher's universe (and feeling guilty at the thought of letting such a nice hardback gather dust) I decided to give it a go. After the snore-fest that was Jasmyn, I needed something that was going to wake me up and give me a hefty slap around the chops.

Shadow of the Scorpion did a decent job.

Raised to adulthood during the end of the war between the human Polity and the vicious arthropoid race, the Prador, Ian Cormac is haunted by childhood memories of a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone and the burden of losses he doesn't remember. In the years following the war, he signs up with Earth Central Security, and is sent out to help either restore or simply maintain order on worlds devastated by Prador bombardment. There he discovers that though the old enemy remains as murderous as ever, it is not anywhere near as perfidious or dangerous as some of his fellow humans, some of them closer to him than he would like. Amidst the ruins left by wartime genocides, he discovers in himself a cold capacity for violence, learns some horrible truths about his own past and, set upon a course of vengeance, tries merely to stay alive.

While I knew that Shadow of the Scorpion was a prequel, the concern was always there that my enjoyment of the novel would suffer due to my lack of familiarity with Asher's universe. This proved not to be a problem - Asher must have realised that this novel might attract newcomers, as he takes care to provide a suitable depth of background information to help them get a feel for his universe. Commendably he manages to do this without compromising the pace of the novel - exposition is nicely spread out, without any clumsy infodumps.

Speaking of pace, it's fast. Asher doesn't mess around - the story rips along at gratifying speed, the emphasis clearly on action. The plot is carefully constructed, with two narrative threads (one focusing on Cormac's childhood, the other on his career progression in the present) weaving together nicely. These chronological jumps in the narrative are used to good effect, with events in the present explained by revelations from Cormac's childhood. Such a device can be jarring and ineffective when not employed properly, but Asher handles it well. A nice counterpoint is achieved between the introspection and revelation of the chapters that deal with Cormac's past, and the high-octane action of the chapters focusing on his present state. Asher's no-nonsense, economical style of prose helps the story's momentum.

I wouldn't say characterisation is the novel's strong point, but it's adequate: Cormac is well-developed and makes for a decent protagonist, while the various other characters that flit in and out of the story are granted enough depth and personality to be engaging. My knowledge of SF is rather limited, so I can't comment effectively on Asher's universe, but it was certainly well-realised enough to hold my attention. I liked the ideas surrounding memory erasure, and the fleeting glimpses I got of the Prador made me want to read more about them (how can you not like huge Crab-like aliens?). While I figured out the main twist of the storyline some time before it was revealed, it didn't spoil my enjoyment of the book.

Quibbles are fairly minor. I would have liked more of an emotional response from Cormac at times (his lack of reaction to the fate of a female character who he appeared to be close to, struck me as odd). The eventual showdown with the antagonist of the piece seemed a little rushed, with a solution that just seemed to appear out of nowhere (clearly this moment would have been far more significant to a reader familiar with the earlier Comac books, whereas for me it fell a little flat). I'd also liked to have seen more of Cormac's training with the Sparkind - he seemed to join their ranks and develop very quickly.

Other than that, the repeated use of the word 'abruptly' became increasingly distracting - at one point it was used four times in one page, but I guess this is just a quirk of Asher's that somehow his editor failed to pick up on.

Verdict: Shadow of the Scorpion is a fast, entertaining read that offers something for new and old readers alike - for the former, a good introduction to Asher's novels, for the latter, an insight into how Asher's most popular character became the man he is. Minor flaws didn't spoil the novel for me, and I expect I'll check out some more of Asher's stuff - probably starting with Prador Moon.


Iain said...

I am quite fond of Neal Asher's Cormac novels. They are fast, uncomplicated reads full of action and in Dragon and Mr Crane the author has given us two fantastic characters.

One of my problems with Sci-fi is the science bit. Sometimes the hard science of the plot is beyond my feeble, artistic brain and I end up hurling the unreadable tosh in the corner. I read a book called The Execution Channel last year and while some reviewers were orgasmic in their praise of the novel and its 'jaw-dropping' denouement, I found it plain daft and said book ended up in the aforementioned corner.

The last Cormac novel that I read was Brass Man which I enjoyed very much. I will have to get onto Polity Agent and Shadow of the Scorpion. As well as James Barclay's new book.

gav ( said...

Glad I inspired you to pick it up.

I got into Neal Asher via The Gabble and Other Stories - the best short story collection I've read as it showed so many aspects of his Polity Universe - not many collections hang together like that.

I've been told that Orbus is also a good jump on to that series as it's episodic and you don't have to have read the others.

I'm reading The Last Colony by John Scalzi - he's another good and accessible sci-fi writer.

Maybe you'll be expanding into more scifi? ;)

Iain said...

Gav is quite right about Scalzi. I read Old Man's War earlier this year and it is one of my reads of the year so far.

You should look out for Gridlinked, the first Cormac novel, and Line of Polity, its sequel.