Brass Man is the third volume in Asher’s Polity series, following Gridlinked and Line of Polity. I have read, but not reviewed, both. I suppose that each book is technically stand alone, but they are best enjoyed in sequence. Brass Man in particular feels like the second half of a duology, continuing several story threads from Line of Polity. Things are fully continuous however, as this volume’s namesake is a holdover from Gridlinked and made no appearance in the second book. Brass Man being the middle book of a fairly popular series, I’m going to assume that most people landing on this post are already Asher fans and familiar with The Polity. (The alternative is to be wildly confused for the first hundred pages or so; I would be rather surprised if many people stayed with the book long enough to make sense of what they would have learned reading in chronological order.) Based on this assumption, I will structure this review a bit differently than normal, starting with my reactions and conclusions before highlighting some aspects of Asher’s writing that deserve a deeper look.
Like I said, anyone who has either read, or is considering reading, Brass Man is probably already a Polity fan. Praise or criticism would no doubt fall on deaf ears, so let us just say that this is my favorite Asher book thus far. He has a better command of his plots and characters than before, and is writing with greater precision and clarity. My biggest complaint with Gridlinked was the somewhat disjointed narrative arc; things happened that weren’t necessarily crucial, or even related, and Asher toyed with a few ideas early on that were left by the wayside, not as red herrings, but simply as dangling plot threads. In Brass Man, there is little fat. The story is complex and multilayered, but I didn’t get the sense that it was threatening to careen off the rails. He has maintained the dark, glittery edge that made the initial Polity books fun, but sanded off the rough edges that snagged once in awhile. To anyone who hasn’t read these and is curious, start with Gridlinked but please know that most of its shortcomings are remedied by the time Brass Man arrives.
Asher is part of the UK invasion crew that dominates contemporary space opera. Like most of them, he owes a debt to Iain M. Banks, Asher perhaps more than most. His Polity is a clear descendant of the Culture, though where Banks laces his future with utopian whimsy, Asher takes a darker path. This is because more than any of his countrymen save Richard Morgan, Asher has internalized the cyberpunk aesthetic. Not so much with hacking and mirror shades, but the hard-boiled, noir atmosphere in a stellar empire is a perfect 21st Century construct. This is a future that has maintained its shadowy sides despite the high technology. The hero Ian Cormac deserves to be played by a science fictional Bogart, beset by diabolical villains and dangerous seductresses. (I’m not sure what Bogart would make of AI, aliens, or near sentient shuriken, but that is a quibble for another time.)
Other motifs emerge as Brass Man proceeds. Asher places the bulk of his action on the frontier, in this case called The Line of Polity, figuring that life is pretty drab inside a stable, AI-run commonwealth. This reminds one of Banks of course, but they are hardly the only authors that choose the wild outlands to anchor their SF. Even with all the options presented by a galactic frontier, Asher shows a clear predilection for inhospitable planets, especially those with horrifying wildlife. I hope to never be reborn as a Neal Asher character, since the chances of me being devoured, dissolved, dismembered, or simply squashed by the native fauna seem prohibitively high. More conventional death is also abundant, but the animals are scarier than the terrorists.
Brass Man is not for those looking for profound meditations of the human condition. Instead, it is a festively violent, far future, slam bang action thriller, full of nefarious villains, imaginative technology, scary wildlife, and a hard boiled hero. Asher’s writing improves with each book, so I am looking forward to Ian Cormac’s next adventure.
Rating: Leeds United, circa 1974: Championship caliber material and lots of gruesome violence.