Ascendant Stars (Book Three of Humanity’s Fire) by Michael Cobley (book review).
‘Ascendant Stars’ is part three of a big trilogy, ‘Humanity’s Fire’, which can be a problem. The book opens with a pretty efficient summary of what has gone before from author Michael Cobley. Unfortunately, so much has gone before it was hard to get my head around. Deciding the best thing to do was carry on regardless, I kept reading and presently it made sense, mostly.
The centre of the action is Darien, a planet occupied by humans sent forth in an emergency centuries ago. They lost contact with home. There are two other colony worlds in the same condition for three were sent forth when Earth was threatened at that time. Earthsphere found Darien in book one, ‘Seeds Of Earth’, but the main human worlds are under the sway of the Sendrukan Hegemony, a not very nice empire. Darien also seems to be a holding ground for ancient forces that fought a titanic war long ago and are reviving for another go at it. Nasty types from all over the galaxy and even the depths of Hyperspace are now converging on a slightly bucolic settlement of rough hewn frontier type boys and girls for whom it may all be too much.
There are quite a few characters to follow and they usually get a chapter each, one after the other. Greg has chapter one. He is moping about on Nivyesta, Darien’s moon, because his girl-friend, Catriona, has become one with the forest. Catriona is next up, then Julia, an enhanced type who is being held prisoner and forced to design weapons of mass destruction for an evil terrorist with an unknown agenda. Kuros has a chapter, too. He’s the Sendrukan ambassador to Darien but has been taken over by his AI. Kao Chih is from another lost human colony and has had an exciting time getting near Darien. Greg and Theo are from the target planet, as is Chel, one of the native Uvovo. Robert Horst is the Earth ambassador to Darien and there are copies of him running around to complicate things.
As well as numerous characters, there are numerous landscapes, many of them odd. Julia spends some time as a fractalised sentience inside the Datastream, the ‘internet’ which stretches across the galaxy, more or less, full of virtual realities, codes, AIs, security systems and so forth. Robert goes through a warp and ends up in the subconscious of the Godhead, an ancient sentience of unknown origin. Cobley is endlessly inventive in describing these backgrounds, inevitably in human terms. They are very fluid and change quickly though, unlike real landscapes of trees and hills.
Thankfully, there are some real landscapes of trees and hills still around and real humans with arms and legs to occupy them, mostly on Darien. The key points are frequently occupied by enemy powers, so sieges and battles form a large part of the story. Space, that final frontier, is another important battleground and Cobley does a good job of describing combat among the stars. Some of it has an inevitable ring of familiarity. Beam weapons and torpedoes are deployed against shields which flicker and glow under the assault. Sneaky use is made of fighters and shuttles and the enemy computer systems can be fiddled with at times.
All in all, this is an excellent space opera, full of imagination and invention. The human characters are mostly likeable and the inhuman ones send a shiver down the spine, especially the ones with machine parts and the parasites. There is a pleasing familiarity to much of it for those well-read in the genre and even for those who only do their Science Fiction on film and television. The writing is crisp and clear throughout and it all leads beautifully to a glorious conclusion. If I lost the plot occasionally it is because I am old and the little grey cells are fading away, not through any fault of the author. Even you young people must have trouble at times with the third parts of complex trilogies when you read part two more than a year ago. If you are lucky enough not to have read part one and two yet, then I highly recommend the series. Michael Cobley has added a fine piece of work to a grand tradition and I think old E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith is lying tranquil in his grave.
(pub: Orbit. 470 page enlarged paperback. Price: £13.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-635-1)
check out websites: www.orbitbooks.net and www.michaelcobley.com