Book review: Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher

Before Dark Intelligence, I had read precisely one story by Neal Asher: It was called “Shell Game” and was also set in Asher’s “Polity” universe—and I read it 6 years ago and remember nothing about it save that I enjoyed it. Over the years I’ve seen the announcement of numerous new Polity books, but never got around to picking one up, so when the publisher offered a copy of DA for review I jumped at the chance to finally dig deeper into the universe.

Dark Intelligence more or less follows two characters as they chase after a rogue artificial intelligence “black AI” named Penny Royal. First we meet former soldier Thorvald Spear—whose terrific name might be the best thing in the book (not even kidding)—as he awakens 100 years after his death, a feat made possible using recovered memory implants placed into cloned bodies. Spear returns dead-set on revenge against Penny Royal, whom he blames for the death of his squadmates back during the Prador Wars. But is Penny Royal truly to blame? And are Spear’s memories even trustworthy? Spear’s sections of the book are written in an engaging first-person, often jumping to flashbacks of his memories to give his background, and overall his POV does a good job of getting the reader up to speed with the Polity universe. So it’s a surprise when, a few chapters in, we cut from Spear’s first-person narrative to a more traditional third-person one. Because this isn’t just Thorvald Spear’s story.

Enter Isobel Santomi, who turns out to be the second protagonist of the novel. She’s a crime lord who once struck a deal with Penny Royal, the result of which made her a powerful figure in the underworld. But Penny Royal’s gifts always come with a price, and Isobel finds herself slowly transforming into a “hooder”, some kind of bizarre, carnivorous wormlike monster. Like Spear, she too desires vengeance on the black AI.

Much of the story consists of Spear and Santomi bouncing around chasing Penny Royal from world to world. Thorvald and Isobel cross paths early on, and then Penny Royal hijacks Isobel’s ship, with Spear just missing the black AI at each stop. (I’ll confess I got a little lost at this point, trying to keep track of who was where as they all bounced around.) Eventually, all the threads converge at the planet Masada for a big finale where everything gets wrapped up nicely.

First, the good stuff: This a really cool universe. Thorvald Spear is a great name, as well as a joy to follow around. Penny Royal is a terrifying baddie. Isobel’s transformation is well-done body horror of the most disturbing degree. And it’s nice to see all the plot threads get tied up by book’s end.

On the other hand, the promotional material that came with my book billed it as “an ideal entry point for new readers” into the Polity universe (which was fairly influential in my decision to accept a review copy.) But a lot of the stuff at the end of the book seemed to hinge on characters and events from earlier books—with one prominent creature having already had an entire novel dedicated to it—and if I wasn’t entirely lost, I feel like I missed out on a lot of the impact the end of book could have had. And speaking of the end: Story-wise, everything came to a nice tidy conclusion, and yet this is just the first book of what I assume is a trilogy. Having said that, though everything was resolved, very little was actually explained, which is where I’m figuring (hoping) Book Two comes in.

Make no mistake, though, Dark Intelligence is a good read: fun characters and great action, all set in a fascinating and highly-imaginative (and slightly horrifying) universe. I definitely need to read some more Polity stories, but I’m thinking I’ll want to pick up some of the older books first. [3.5 out of 5 stars]

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