BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The continuing adventures of Polity Agent Ian Cormac as he tries apprehend the terrorist Skellor, deals with remnants of Dragon and meets an old foe thought destroyed in Mr. Crane, the brass man of the title.
PROS: Interesting universe and characters.
CONS: Very violent, choppy story threads, somewhat overcomplicated and long, plot centered at expense of characters.
BOTTOM LINE: A decent entry into the Polity universe, but doesn’t quite live up to Gridlinked.
While reading The Brass Man, I had the feeling that I was missing something. People and events were referred to that I didn’t remember reading about in Gridlinked. The reason being that I missed reading the second Ian Cormac novel, Line Of Polity. Nowhere on the book did it mention being the third in a series, and the online resources were vague, at best, on the series order. So I plunged on and I must say, Asher has done a nice job of giving the reader just enough info on what happened in book two to make sense of the story in Brass Man. I’m sure I’ve missed some stuff, but I could follow and understand this story with a little effort.
After the events in Line Of Polity, the terrorist Skellor is hiding from the Polity while he tries to consolidate his power over the nano-like Jain technology. This power manifests itself in an ability to affect biological entities, himself and others, in a variety of ways, mostly unpleasant. In an effort to find some good help, Skellor exhumes the parts of the schizophrenic android, Mr. Crane. Skellor’s control over Mr. Crane is never a sure thing, and Mr. Crane seems to have an agenda of his own: to put his shattered mind back together and become something other than a killing machine. Hot on the trail of Skellor is Ian Cormac. His quest will lead him to an out-Polity planet and the showdown with Skellor, Dragon, and Mr. Crane.
The best way I can describe The Brass Man is long and over complicated. The story itself consists of several subplot and the book swaps back and forth between them, never dwelling too long on any one thread. In fact, rarely was any thread more than 3 or 4 pages long. This served to chop the story up into little bits, and it became a distraction to try and keep everything straight. The plots involved weren’t necessarily straight-forward, and required some effort to figure out, which was made more difficult by the frequent thread swapping. I felt the threads could have been consolidated better and the plot tightened up. As it is, The Brass Man is almost 500 pages long. A bit long for the story that was being told.
Which is too bad, since Asher’s Polity universe is a really cool place. It’s controlled by ‘benevolent’ AIs and people can have implants that allow them to access the Grid, a pervasive, wireless internet. This being called Gridlinking. The characters themselves are interesting too. Ian Cormac is a futuristic James Bond type agent, but he appears to be the pawn of unseen powers. And now he appears to be able to access the Grid with a non-functioning implant. Horace Blegg, Cormac’s boss, is also an enigmatic character. Supposedly a survivor of the atomic attacks on Japan in WWII, how is it that he is still alive hundreds of years later? Is he actually the avatar of Earth Central AI? And what does he have in store for Cormac? Skellor, too, is cool. His new found Jain abilities give him vast power to subvert people and machines in ways that are very ugly. Mr. Crane’s story has the seeds of being compelling, but I found his attempts to put his mind back together, and his backstory, to be somewhat murky and confusing.
With all that, the Polity is an interesting place to tell stories. However, The Brass Man really falls down in a couple of areas. Aside from the structure of the novel, which wasn’t that big of an issue, the one thing that really bothered me was the violence. The Brass Man is a very violent book. Skellor rarely leaves any survivors during his encounters with ‘normal’ people, and usually these encounters involve body counts that would make an early Schwarzeneggar proud. Additionally, the people die in horrifying and gruesome ways. Almost every death is described in some detail, many bordering on gratuitous. It almost seems that Asher is reveling in the viscera of violence, for we get description after description of bodies being ripped apart in new, interesting Jain-tech related ways. It became tiresome and a turn off for me.
Secondly, The Brass Man is a plot centered book. So much so that Ian Cormac doesn’t really take the initiative at any point in the story, and instead is always reacting to outside events. Even in the showdown with Skellor he seems to be at the mercy of events. The book has a very Excession-like aspect to it, with some plot elements becoming clear later in the book, and you learn a bit about how Cormac is being used. Now, I liked Iain Banks’ Excession, but Asher’s version here is more blatant and servers to reenforce the plot driven elements at the expense of the characters. Which is too bad, because a bit more character-centered elements could have strengthened the story.
All that being said, The Brass Man isn’t a bad book. From an idea standpoint, its quite good. Intriguing at the very least. It just didn’t hang together very well. The plot could have used some more tightening which would have shortened it some and made it stronger. Still, if you’ve been reading the Polity books, don’t skip this one. While the things that happen here may not affect the overall story arc of Cormac, its still a diverting read.