Neal Asher’s debut, Gridlinked, introduced one of his most memorable characters in Mr. Crane, the brass, skinless golem (a type of android that can be either a being in its own right or house a human mind) with a creative knack for murder and an odd habit of playing with toys. Ian Cormac and his team kill off Mr. Crane in Gridlinked, but this being a Polity story, Brass Man shows that one does not necessarily stay dead in an Asher novel. But one also need not lose one’s favorite overcoat or hat, worn at a rakish angle, of course.
Indeed, one of the early scenes takes place in the aftermath of separatist and Dragon attacks on the theocratic world of Masada and a set of cylinder worlds in Line of Polity. Brass Man begins as separatist Skellor, who brought the plague of Jain technology (virulent nanites that grant hosts amazing abilities before taking them over to seed new versions of itself) to the Polity, rises from the dead early on. Just like a bad horror movie, Skellor reassembles himself and resumes trying to control the tech. And so Ian Cormac travels to Cull, a barren world inhabited by normal and enhanced humans stranded after fleeing their ship generations earlier. They have built a culture around metal working and deal with a host of violent and bizarre creatures. Because it’s an Asher novel. Did you think he would stop at hooders and gabbleducks? Cormac arrives aboard the Jack Ketch, whose AI is fascinated by ancient execution methods. After Line of Polity, Earth Central is paranoid about Jain tech, which makes the Borg look like playground bullies.
The real reason to read any Asher novel is how he fleshes out his universe. He teases out enough to keep you reading but doesn’t give the whole store away. And in this novel, he starts something new by including “retroacts,” really flashbacks that give the history of a character, in this case, Mr. Crane. Not only is Mr. Crane a murderous machine whose favorite method of killing is to rip his victims apart, but he also is on a never-ending quest to find something denied him since his first day as a functioning golem: His sanity. And the little games he plays with his toys between killings is a key to finding it.
I always like how Asher can spin up a body politic, a culture, a technological zeitgeist, and a menagerie of bizarre creatures. In this one, the sleer is the most interesting wildlife. Sort of like a giant beetle, sleers can detach the rear segment of their bodies to go mate while they fight or look for food.
There were two down notes to me in this one. One was the quest of Anderson and Tergal, who are in search of a dragon, not necessarily the entity Dragon (who most definitely plays a role here), but a dragon. It sounds superficially like Roland from the Dark Tower series minus Randall Flagg or hopping between realities. Asher, who isn’t shy about having multiple POV characters, is setting up a later part of the plot, but it drags early on. The other was in one of the introductory “quotes” from lectures and books Asher uses to setup his chapters. One of them ended up being a political statement that sounded off key, a bad note in an otherwise grand symphony. (Think of Tergal and Anderson as the quiet parts.) The former is a matter of taste. That storyline could have been a novel in its own right. The latter was a rare comment on present-day politics that sounded way off from the rest of the novel. It might have worked had it come out of Gordon’s mouth in one of the “quotes” from “How It Is.” I’m listening to Line of Polity on Audible right now, and Gordon’s stepping up as a character, a sort of behind-the-scenes rant about the Polity and its governing AIs.
Overall, I’m disappointed in Asher’s publisher. This book was not readily available in the US. I read an old library copy my brother-in-law ordered off Amazon. And Audible has, as of this writing, no copy of it. Which is too bad, because the book as a whole is probably my favorite so far of the Gridlinked sequence. Certainly, the world as it’s built up after this one is even more fascinating. Maybe Asher should be given the title of Master World Builder.