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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Book Review: Dark Intelligence (Book #1 in the Transformation trilogy) by Neal Asher

While I usually like to start off my reviews on a positive note, especially when I’m reviewing a book that I liked, and for the record, I really loved Dark Intelligence for the most part; I feel like I need to begin this review by discussing what’s definitely the biggest complaint that I have about this book. The reason why I want to start off this review by discussing the biggest complaint that I have about Dark Intelligence is because I want to preface this review by saying that Dark Intelligence is the first book by Neal Asher that I’ve ever read. I feel like I need to be upfront about that right from the start of this review in case people who’re much more familiar with Asher’s books read this review, and feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. If people read this review and feel that way, I definitely apologize for that. I always try my best to get the details regarding a book straight whenever I write a review for it. That being said, while I really loved this book and I was definitely blown away by the overall quality of Asher’s writing; the biggest problem that I think this book has is that it definitely lacks a sense of accessibility to people like me, who’ve never read any of Asher’s books before.

When I originally bought my copy of Dark Intelligence, which was well over a year ago, I was initially unaware of the fact that while it’s the first book in the Transformation trilogy, it’s also a part of the Polity universe that the majority of Asher’s books take place in; and that it builds upon events that take place in some of Asher’s earlier books. It was only after I had already started reading the book that I really started to realize how tied in and connected to Asher’s previous books Dark Intelligence truly is. I definitely found that rather frustrating and confusing since this is the first book by Neal Asher that I’ve ever read, and I had been really excited to read it ever since I first saw both Dark Intelligence, and the second book in the Transformation trilogy, War Factory, at Barnes & Noble.

While I think it’s great that Asher has created an elaborate universe for his books to take place in, I can definitely see some people viewing the fact that a lot of Neal Asher’s books are set in his Polity universe, and the fact that his books clearly build upon each other as a deterrent from deciding to check out his books. I think that would be a real shame, because Asher is definitely a very talented writer. That being said, I really feel like Asher could have done a better job of writing Dark Intelligence in such a way that makes it accessible to new readers who’re relatively, if not entirely, unfamiliar with his books; while also expanding the mythology of the Polity universe that he’s introduced and developed in his previous books for his long-time fans. 

To be fair to Asher, I should probably mention that one of the books that I’ve read since I finished reading Dark Intelligence is Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno. While I wouldn’t call myself a diehard Star Wars fan who’s an expert on the franchise who feels the need to consume all things Star Wars related; I’ve seen all of the movies, I’ve watched a large portion of the Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series, and every episode of Star Wars Rebels that’s aired so far. However, in a lot of ways, I had a significantly more difficult time following the plot of Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel than I had when it came to being able to follow the plot of Dark Intelligence. As I was reading Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, I constantly felt like that book had even more problems with being accessible to people who are at least fairly familiar with the Star Wars franchise, than this book has with being accessible to people who’re new to Asher’s books. Plus, I just think that Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel is simply God-awful for the most part.

Despite the problems that I had with this book not being entirely accessible and easy for people who’re new to Asher’s books to follow the plot of Dark Intelligence, I still really loved this book for the most part. While I do think that Dark Intelligence has its share of flaws, in some ways, I honestly found myself enjoying it more than I enjoyed the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones, as I was reading Dark Intelligence; and for the record, I absolutely loved A Game of Thrones. Perhaps some people will think it’s weird of me to compare Dark Intelligence to A Game of Thrones in any way since A Game of Thrones isn’t a science fiction book, but I have always kind of lumped the science fiction genre and the fantasy genre together; especially since Barnes & Noble has always put their science fiction and fantasy books together in the same section of the store.

That being said, a big part of why I wanted to read Dark Intelligence in the first place is because in the past, the only science fiction books that I’ve read have been books that were based on the Star Trek franchise, and a few YA Star Wars books that were based on Episode 1: The Phantom Menace back when I was a kid; and I really wanted to find some good science fiction books that weren’t based on the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. Dark Intelligence definitely delivered when it comes to my desire to find some good non-Star Trek, non-Star Wars science fiction books to read. However, I don’t think that Dark Intelligence is necessarily the best entry point for people who’re looking to get into Asher’s books, because of the book’s accessibility issues. If people are interested in reading Neal Asher’s books, I think it’s probably best if they start by reading some of his earlier books first. Despite the issues that I have with this book, in terms of the overall quality of Asher’s writing for Dark Intelligence, Asher definitely made an excellent first impression with me.

I was incredibly impressed by the very well thought out “world” that Asher has created for many of his books to take place in. As much as I love science fiction TV shows and movies, when it comes to books within the science fiction genre, I’ve often had a hard time being able to actually picture the characters and the overall world that they live in, because science fiction authors can really do all kinds of things when it comes to creating the characters and the setting for their books, especially when it comes to books featuring aliens and strange creatures like this book does. That being said, I felt like Asher did a phenomenal job of writing the book in such a way that I was really able to picture what was going in the book in my mind, as I was reading Dark Intelligence.

While I thought that Asher definitely could have done a better job of mentioning backstory that’s related to things that have apparently happened in his earlier books in this book, in order to make Dark Intelligence more accessible to people who are new and unfamiliar with his books; I thought that he did a great job of explaining the various kinds of technology that the characters used throughout the book. I thought that was especially the case when it came to how Asher explained the various options people have available to them when it comes to what happens to them when they die in chapter four. Dark Intelligence isn’t a book where Asher just randomly throws around a bunch of made up technobabble that doesn’t really make any sense, or get explained like he’s playing dodge ball with it. That’s something that I’ve always felt that the writers for the Star Trek TV series and movies have been guilty of, so I really appreciate the fact that Asher actually took the time to explain how the various kinds of technology that was referenced in the book worked. I also felt like Asher did a really good job of explaining the mechanics behind various kinds of technology that Thorvald Spear and the other characters used throughout the book in such a way that the writing for Dark Intelligence never felt too exposition heavy.

Thorvald Spear is an incredibly fascinating character, and while he’s definitely not necessarily the most likable person in terms of some of his actions throughout the book, I still loved him as a character. One of the things that made Thorvald Spear such a fascinating character to me is the fact that as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Thorvald’s memories have been altered, making him an unreliable narrator. Aside from Paula Hawkins’ book, The Girl on the Train, I honestly haven’t read very many books that are written from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. While Thorvald Spear slowly being revealed to be an unreliable narrator did add an interesting element to Dark Intelligence, for a large portion of the book, I didn’t think that Asher was doing as much with that aspect of who Spear was as a character as he could have. For the most part, I felt like Asher pretty much only referenced the idea of Spear being unreliable narrator by having him repeatedly say in the narration that he was experiencing strange feelings of déjà vu, as well as occasionally featuring flashbacks to the Prador Wars throughout the book.

The end of chapter fourteen is the point in the book where I felt like Asher was finally taking the concept of Thorvald Spear being an unreliable narrator in a really interesting direction. The idea of Spear being presented as an unreliable narrator went from being rather underdeveloped and somewhat boring due to Asher having Spear repeatedly say that he was experiencing a sense of déjà vu, without really delving too deeply into what that was really like for him, to being really interesting by having Spear begin to question whether the emotions that he felt were truly his, or something that had been programed into him. I really wish that Asher had explored the idea of Spear questioning his emotions in more detail throughout the book; instead of just having Spear periodically say that he was experiencing a case of déjà vu due to his memories having been tampered with. I think it could have potentially led to some incredibly riveting storytelling, if Asher had explored the idea of Spear questioning whether or not his emotions were truly his own in more detail.

While Dark Intelligence focuses first and foremost on the characters Thorvald Spear and Penny Royal, the book also features several supporting characters that are all affected by Spear and Penny Royal’s actions throughout the book. They’re also all enjoyable characters in their own way. Isobel Satomi, who’s a crime lord, is probably the most prominently featured secondary character in the book. As I was reading Dark Intelligence, I came to view Isobel as almost serving as a second protagonist for the book, especially since the title of the series being Transformation, is referencing Isobel’s transformation into a Hooder, which she undergoes throughout the book. Isobel made a deal with Penny Royal at one point in the book, and it ultimately led to her being transformed into a Hooder, which is basically some type of weird, carnivorous wormlike monster.

Captain Blite is definitely my favorite out of all the secondary characters in Dark Intelligence. He’s the captain of a ship called The Rose, and he and his crew are a team of smugglers that get dragged into the whole conflict with Thorvald Spear, Isobel Satomi and Penny Royal rather unwittingly. Despite Blite having a relatively minor role in the book, he still proved to be a very memorable and well-developed character, in my opinion. In a book where the three most central characters in the book (Thorvald Spear, Isobel Satomi, and Penny Royal) do a lot of morally questionable, if not outright bad things; it was really interesting to see a character like Blite, who despite being a smuggler, hasn’t completely lost his sense of morality. Blite is definitely a character that I think people can root for. Blite was ultimately a really great character, and I really wish that Asher had featured him the book more, because I loved him so much.

Writing characters that are all very memorable is definitely something that I thought Asher really excelled at when it comes to the writing for Dark Intelligence. I finished reading Dark Intelligence weeks ago, and I can still remember each of the characters that were featured in this book, even the minor characters. In contrast to the movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I saw on the day it opened in theaters, and with the exception of Jyn Erso, Cassian Andor, Baze Malbus, and K-2SO, I found the majority of the characters in that movie to be rather underdeveloped and forgettable; whereas the characters in Dark Intelligence are all pretty memorable, in my opinion. I went to a morning showing of Rogue One, and I honestly had forgotten most of the characters’ names by the time that I got home that night, but I digress. Despite this book’s flaws, having characters that are very memorable is definitely one of Dark Intelligence’s greatest strengths.

The plot of Dark Intelligence moves at a really great pace throughout the entire book, in my opinion. Dark Intelligence definitely isn’t a book where the reader has to simply power through a significant portion of the book before the plot really gets going, and kicks into high gear. Thorvald Spear is resurrected after having died a hundred years earlier, and while he does take some time to adjust to things, he sets off on his quest to find Penny Royal rather promptly. I really like how Asher even acknowledges at one point in the book how quickly Spear is moving along with his plans by having Bob, an A.I. that Spear created, tell Spear that he’s doing too much, too soon. Speaking of Bob, while Bob is only featured in the first few chapters of Dark Intelligence, I still loved the character and found him to be very memorable despite his appearance in the book being pretty brief.

Despite the fact that I definitely think that this book isn’t entirely accessible to people like me, who are unfamiliar with the Polity universe and Asher’s books in general, this book did a great job of holding my attention throughout the entire book. Unlike the aforementioned Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, Dark Intelligence got me very excited to really dive into the Polity universe, and it really made me want to read more of Neal Asher’s books. Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel, on the other hand, has kind of scared me away, and has made me feel very hesitant to read more books based on the Star Wars franchise. When it comes to Dark Intelligence’s accessibility issues, it honestly wasn’t until I was towards the end of the book that I really felt like Asher was heavily referencing things that have possibly happened in his earlier books, causing me to get incredibly confused in the process. Other than that, I was only occasionally confused here and there throughout the book.

One last thing that I want to comment on is the fact that I thought that Asher handled the transitions from one character or subplot to another very well, by including headings throughout the book; specifying which character he was switching the focus of the book over to, whenever he did so. Asher also handled the transitions from the present to the flashbacks, and back to the present, very well by including headings for the flashbacks that occurred throughout the book. I felt like that really helped to provide a little bit of context for the reader. That’s also something that I personally really appreciated about this book, since I’ve read a fair amount books in the past several months where the author didn’t do anything at the beginning of a chapter to specify changes in point of view for the book, or do anything to provide context whenever they did flashbacks, which can be rather frustrating whenever that’s the case.

All things considered, despite the issues that I have with this book not being the best entry point into Neal Asher’s Polity universe for people like me who’ve never read any of his books before, I still really loved Dark Intelligence for the most part. I would definitely recommend this book to people who’ve at least read some of Asher’s earlier books first, because I don’t think it would be a good idea for people who’ve never read any of Asher’s books before, and are wanting to get into his books to start with Dark Intelligence. I’ll definitely be continuing with the Transformation trilogy, however, before I read War Factory, I’m going to at least read Prador Moon and The Technician first.

As for my final thoughts on Dark Intelligence, this book definitely has a lot going for it: Memorable characters that I really enjoyed, very descriptive writing that really sucks you into the story and makes it easy to picture the universe that this series takes place in, and good pacing. As I said earlier, a big part of why I wanted to read this book is because I had previously pretty much only read science fiction books that were set in the Star Trek universe, and a few Star Wars books when I was a kid. I was looking for some good science fiction books that weren’t based on Star Trek or Star Wars, and Dark Intelligence is definitely great science fiction.

That being said, my final score for Dark Intelligence is 8 out of 10.

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