The breadth & scope of Asher's Polity universe expands yet again in this tale of two bio-engineered human races on two different planets in the same solar system recovering from, and girding for what could be another interplanetary war.
The worlds in this system are not members of the AI-governed Polity, but the Polity is aware of them and has just instituted contact in the form of an agent infused with 2 competing viruses whose conflict could ultimately kill him. As one of Asher's familiar Old Captains, the Spatterjay virus provides McCrooger an imposing presence upon initial contact but quickly becomes a liability. It contributes to a debilitating reaction and procedure that leaves him weaker than he's ever been in his life at a time when he most needs to act.
Sudoria is the dominant world. Its space-faring powers are locked in a power struggle vying for ultimate control of local space that is moving their world towards civil war. The platform-driven Orbital Combine has a research vessel in which a completely alien entity has been captured and is being held in 4 containment canisters. Study of this entity has led to technological advances that worry the military Fleet as they help to erode its influence in Parliament.
Enter four gifted quad siblings driven to succeed... Born of a researcher who studied the alien and then committed a dramatic suicide shortly after they were delivered. They rise through very separate factions of society into positions of great influence and all have ability to affect the power play in different fashions.
There are some very obvious threads about politics, the places of those that have and wield influence, capitalism and the accumulation of wealth, military might and right and taking care of the world that you have amongst others. Knowing that a work touches upon all of these subjects would generally make me very wary. It could easily fall into the category of works like those of Sheri S. Tepper who feels that she has to save the world by battering you over the head and ramming her understanding of all of the world's ills down your throat.
This does not fall into that category. Neal deftly positions each storyline so that there is nothing "preachy" about the way events unfold. The reader is left to take what they will out of each action by following the reactions of the characters.
This work relies less upon the constant action of many of Neal's previous works. It is also contained within a single solar system which one would think reduces the scope of the work. But it doesn't, this is a very character-driven work that gets deeply into each individual's history and psyche! Initially, I found that the characters were fully realized with the exception of the quads, particularly Harald who was busy climbing his way through the ranks of the Fleet. Because they are all so driven, at times they, and he much more than the others seem fairly one-dimensional. I can't help but think that Neal planned it that way because of a twist that occurs that actually explains this phenomenon and puts it in believable perspective.
I have to tell you I blew through this book. I'll put that down to the slightly larger typeface than in previous Polity works. But at the end of it, this is a great story and a great read. I can't wait to see if Neal revisits this system and these characters again! Highly recommended!