23 Years On Fire by Joel Shepherd

23YearsOnFireIt’s been almost a decade since the release of Killswitch, the third novel in Joel Shepherd’s excellent Cassandra Kresnov series. In that time, Shepherd wrote a series of four fantasy novels entitled A Trial of Blood and Steel (also excellent, by the way). Given the long break, I’m sure that many readers assumed that the Cassandra Kresnov series was done at three books. At least, it came as a complete surprise to this fan when an advance copy of 23 Years On Fire, a brand new novel in the Cassandra Kresnov series, landed on my doorstep.

First things first: if you’re new to Cassandra Kresnov, you probably shouldn’t start with 23 Years On Fire. Some time has passed in the internal chronology since the end of the previous novel, which makes the book feel like a series reboot of sorts, or even the start of what will possibly turn out to be a whole new trilogy. Whatever the case may be, you’ll be lost if you haven’t read the first three novels in the series: CrossoverBreakaway, and Killswitch.

Our main character is once again the “synthetic” person Cassandra (Sandy) Kresnov: to the naked eye, she looks like a regular human being, but she’s actually an incredibly advanced and powerful android created by the League in its ongoing interstellar war with the Federation. I’m using android for want of a better word here, because the true nature of Kresnov and other artificial persons like her is actually one of the main themes of the series.

When Sandy escapes the League and finds refuge in the Federation, it sets off an ongoing discussion about (again for want of a better word) “human rights.” Sandy is the most advanced of her kind, making her the almost-human face of a class of beings that is, on the one hand, considerably stronger, more agile, and often more intelligent than regular flesh-and-blood people, but on the other hand falls squarely in the “uncanny valley” and has been used as disposable and lethal pawns by the “other side” in an interstellar conflict. Some people sympathize, others discriminate or outright hate, and entire groups just want to use them as tools.

In some ways, the setup of the totalitarian League and the comparably more liberal Federation feels like a twist on C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance/Union universe, with the Union’s cloned and tape-educated azi in a similar, quasi-human position as the synthetics. Imagine an incredibly advanced (and much more powerful and independent) azi who manages to escape to the other side and become a power player in the larger conflict, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the general outline of this series.

Joel Shepherd gradually unwraps the layers of this fictional universe, revealing details about the origins of the Federation and League as the series progresses. And, purposely staying as vague as possible to avoid spoilers: the new novel adds an entirely new and exciting dimension to this aspect of the series.

Despite all the interstellar politics and musings about the nature of humanity, these books also contain a huge amount of pulse-pounding, edge-of-your-seat action. The way Joel Shepherd combines complex universe-building with spectacular, elaborate combat scenes is reminiscent of some of Peter F. Hamilton’s SF, although Shepherd occasionally goes into much more detail about the politics behind it all.

Actually, if Shepherd’s books have one weakness, it’s their wildly inconsistent pace, switching back and forth from slow, brainy world-building sections and occasional info-dumps to breathless action sequences. On the plus side, the world-building depth adds levels of enjoyment to the action scenes that you wouldn’t otherwise get, but the two aspects just don’t always feel as smoothly integrated as they could be. (Come to think of it, his fantasy series A Trial of Blood and Steel suffers from this too, but again, at least for me this was never enough of a problem to keep me from recommending it.)

The other issues you may remember from the previous three installments in the series resurface here too: aside from the seesaw-like pacing, there’s some choppy prose, the occasional cringe-worthy line of dialogue, and some lengthy lectures and other assorted info-dumps. Somehow it all works out though, turning this into an intelligent and immensely entertaining series. There are flaws, sure, but they’ve never been enough to keep me from reaching for the next volume.

As for the new novel 23 Years On Fire, fans of the series will be happy to hear that several familiar characters make a welcome return, including Vanessa, Rhian, Ari, Mustafa, and of course Sandy Kresnov herself. Whereas the previous novels were mostly set in the city of Tanusha (a wonderful SFnal setting that’s very high on my list of “fictional places I’d most like to retire to”), the most memorable parts of the story are set on the edge of League space, on a world where new technological developments have potentially terrifying consequences for regular humans and synthetics alike.

The novel starts off with a bang, then slows down noticeably as Shepherd catches the reader up on the events that transpired since Killswitch and sets up the new conflict. Once that’s out of the way, 23 Years On Fire really takes off. Especially the second half of the novel is one long, thrilling sequence of explosive action scenes that won’t give you many chances to come up for breath until the very last page… and by that point, Shepherd has set up an immensely successful hook for the next installment in the series.

23 Years On Fire marks the welcome return of Joel Shepherd and his memorable protagonist Cassandra Kresnov. If you’re in the mood for a fun, intelligent, and action-packed science fiction series, definitely give these books a try.

This review was originally published at Tor.com on September 2nd, 2013.

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