Joel Shepherd’s Casandra Kresnov novels were originally published in the Australia, beginning in 2001 with his debut Crossover. When Pyr launched, as I indicated in my column on David Louis Edelman’s Jump 225 trilogy, part of editorial director Lou Anders’ mission was to bring non-US books to a US audience. With Shepherd’s future-SF action series, he did just that.
Joel Shepherd’s debut novel, Crossover, is firmly entrenched in the subset of science fiction – that of the SF-Femme-Fatale page-turner, to borrow a term from the back-cover blurb on the book. With this novel, Shepherd, and Cassandra “Sandy” Kresnov, joins the ranks of writers like Karen Traviss, Marienne de Pierres, and Elizabeth Bear. Shepherd’s protagonist, Cassandra Kresnov, is a defective operative from the League, looking to eschew her former country/employer. After being nearly killed by her country, she emigrates to its enemy, the Federation; specifically, the nation-state of Tanusha on the planet Callay. Kresnov differs in one major fashion from other folk: she is not human. She is a synthetic human, or artificial intelligence. This point is the core of the novel and series, and throughout the series Shepherd brings to light a wide range of arguments in the debate is an artificial intelligence a person? Can they have humanity?
This argument; what it means to be human, is one of the Great Questions of Science Fiction. How can humanity be judged and measured in a future where we have evolved and modified ourselves, and where humans can create beings virtually indistinguishable from themselves? As far back as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and more recent novels like John Scalzi’s, The Ghost Brigades or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, writers have been tackling this issue. Throughout the series, Kresnov encounters different obstacles, both physical and psychological, on her path to discovering who she is. Kresnov’s past as an ultimate killing machine is in stark contrast to the thoughtful and insightful conversations she carries on about what it means to be human. A lot of the story is a balancing act, and nowhere is this more evident than Kresnov’s conversations with her new colleagues in the Federation, specifically a woman named Vanessa.
Shepherd balances the thoughtful dialogue (both external and inner) and slam-bang action sequences such as an assassination attempt or the various skirmishes in which Cassandra finds herself. In many ways Crossover is a very visceral book, evoking strong and powerful thoughts and emotions, both of which Kresnov inspires in those who surround her. The platoon/troop she led during her years in the League had an unwavering loyalty to her, more so than their loyalty to the League itself. Shepherd does something subtle; these characters don’t immediately trust Kresnov. Rather, they view her with fear and awe and soon realize that despite literally being a killing machine, Kresnov has a great spark of humanity. As they come to know her beyond their preconceived notions (i.e. an out-and-out killing machine) these characters accept her.
The future in which Kresnov lives resembles our world, but has enough of the cool science-fictiony stuff to make it a possible extrapolation of our own. In addition to the artificial humans, humanity has expanded far beyond Earth and flying cars are the mode of transport on Callay, which resembles a plausible future Earth enough that Shepherd is able to tinker with politics that mirrors much of today’s world. It is a familiar trick in the genre, but Shepherd plays it to the fullest, between an assassination attempt, the loss of trust in the government you thought you knew, and a political coup, such events could easily happen in the real world.
In Breakaway Kresnov’s thrill-ride of a life continues as Shepherd picks up her story shortly after the events of Crossover, and the story doesn’t miss a beat. If anything the beat gets turned up a few notches. Just because Cassandra is now part of the citizenry of Callay, it doesn’t mean her life has settled down. Who she is and *what* she is presents a moral crux for many of the people on the world, not the least of which are both the League and the Federation. The political powers that be (and those that would be) want to use her as a touchstone and a political tool.
Clearly, Sandy has a lot on her plate, both on the political level and her role as the planet’s preeminent security agent keeps her plenty busy. From saving lives to thwarting terrorist attacks, a lot of bullets fly. The philosophical underpinnings of Breakaway, while somewhat different than Crossover, are nonetheless still taut. In the previous novel, much was made of whether or not Sandy was truly a human. While that issue was not quite resolved, its answer is not as impossible to determine. Here in Breakaway, Sandy’s loyalties are brought into question as Mustafa, another GI model from the League confronts her about whether or not she made the right decision in defecting from the League to become a citizen of the Federation. During these exchanges with Mustafa, Kresnov’s defense of her defection from the League seems almost as she may still be trying to convince herself
With the character of Kresnov set up fairly well in Crossover, Shepherd can reveal more depth and back-history of his future world in Breakaway. Shepherd postulates a future that is very Indian/Asian-centric. While Callay is a mixed-pot of ethnicity, so to speak, the dominant names and cultures are of an Indian background. While Crossover was an extremely well balanced novel, in terms of the pacing, Breakaway’s pacing was a bit more subdued. There seemed to be a bit more “discussion” in Breakaway, while Crossover featured a bit more action.
In Killswitch, Sandy continues to defend her adopted nation/world and kick ass two years after the events of Breakaway. Sandy represents a lot of things to different people, a defender and good soldier to some. To others, a threat an affront to humanity and symbol of everything that is wrong with her adopted world of Callay. Sandy is more entrenched in her role as security director and she has been able to reconnect with her friend Rhian. Though quite a distance from Earth, Callay is under siege by a group of military zealots from Earth loyal to the old ways. This is the external problem facing the world of Cally. Paralleling this larger threat is the threat to Sandy on an individual level. It seems a killswitch has been discovered by someone close to one of her original programmers, which, when triggered, will obliterate Sandy’s head. The once nigh-invincible Sandy now has the threat of death hanging over her head.
In the previous two volumes, Sandy’s enemies were more of a collective rather than a true opposite number. Shepherd changes that in Killswitch, with the introduction of Jane – the Bizarro to Sandy’s Superman. I thought this presented a great sense of Sandy’s story continuing to evolve and Shepherd not just repainting-by-numbers the stories he told in the previous volumes because the Killswitch and Jane, Shepherd again shakes up the status quo.
The scenes without Sandy weren’t quite as enthralling, even if the characters were talking about her. However, some of the action-less oriented scenes, particularly those involving discussions between Sandy and Jane, provided the most thought-provoking and compelling scenes in the book. In these conversations, Sandy sees her true fears; indeed she sees in Jane what everyone fears she is – a cold, emotionless killing machine.
I also found the political maneuvering to parallel the action very well, much like the previous two volumes. Shepherd’s adept hand at balancing these two differently flavored adrenaline inducing types of scenes continues to be a strong point in his writing. Another strength that comes to the fore in Killswitch is that Shepherd doesn’t offer easy answers to his character’s problems.
With this trilogy complete, Shepherd has proven his ability to deliver politically and action charged science fiction. The books stand well together as good action-packed Science Fiction. Kresnov is a strong character and a very human non-human character at that. Killswitch is a nice ending to the trilogy and a satisfying culmination of Sandy’s journey. The Cassandra Kresnov trilogy is a thrilling, thought-provoking set of novels.
Lou Anders always had (and still has) not only a great ear and eye for great writing and storytelling, but also a great eye for art and design on the books he published. The great covers for these books are by Stephan Martiniere and capture the feel of the books perfectly.
Although this trilogy is a complete story, Shepherd recently returned to the character in 23 Years on Fire.