Being sick blows, but at least it gives me time to catch up on some reading, writing, and (by far most importantly) sleeping. I've been meaning to write this review for a while, actually; of course, that would require that I give up my lazy-bastard tendencies on weekends, and that ain't happening anytime soon.
Anyway, that aside, it's time to get to work on another installment in Jay Allan's outstanding "Crimson Worlds" sci-fi series. I've already reviewed the first three books in the series, and I've been quite vocal in my opinion that this guy is one of the finest hard sci-fi writers out there today. I should make it clear that there isn't all that much in his books that is ground-breaking or completely innovative; as I noted in my review of his previous book, Jay Allan basically takes the best ideas from the novels of other great sci-fi writers and adds his own unique characters, plot lines, and universe. And he does this very, very well, which is precisely why I hold him in such high regard.
After three novels focused on the human expansion into space and the Western Alliance's brutal, costly, yet mostly overwhelming victories against its opponents, and then on the colonies of the Alliance territories in their fight against central government oppression, Allan switches gears with this book and brings forth a new and very different enemy: the robot soldiers of the First Imperium. Of course, they're never actually called this in the book, they are simply presented as inhuman, unstoppable, and utterly terrifying in every way.
The story of the First Imperium is given, briefly, within the prologue. Basically, aeons before mankind even looked up at the stars, a hyper-advanced alien race had built an immense interstellar empire, but grew soft and decadent, absorbed with the pursuits of pleasures and hedonism and maintained in opulence by their robotic servants. Even after the fall of their mighty empire and the extinction of their race, the controlling intelligence of their robot servants, the Regent, persisted in maintaining the long-forgotten civilisation that its creators had built. Yet time took its toll even on the artificially intelligent Regent, slowly turning its loneliness into insanity and rage. And when the Regent's scout ships stumbled accidentally upon the farthest outposts of human civilisation, its reaction was swift and terrible: all-out, open war.
In this regard there is nothing new in this novel. Jay Allan might as well have taken the back-story of the Eldar from the Warhammer 40K universe and merged it with that of the Necrons to come up with the concept of the robot soldiers of the First Imperium. The cover art for this novel depicts the First Imperium's robot walkers as rather similar in appearance to the Elites from my beloved HALO series. (Actually, it's like the cover artist was playing HALO: Reach while he was doodling ideas for the cover and thought, "hey, those Sangheili look perfect as models for robot warriors"- and then just copied a Minor Elite onto a page and changed the colour scheme.). That is not to say that he does a bad job, though- far from it, in fact. He depicts the mechanical troops of the First Imperium as impossibly tough to damage or destroy, with technology vastly beyond the capabilities of even the most advanced of the human factions. And the manner in which the alien threat advances- inexorable, merciless, and unstoppable- is described in chilling detail.
Imagine fighting an enemy that feels no pain, that never tires, that never loses hope or morale due to losses, that is damn near impossible to destroy. No human army, no matter how well trained or motivated, could hold out forever against such a remorseless opponent. Thus it is within this novel, as colony after colony is attacked and destroyed by the ruthless, pitiless intelligence behind the First Imperium's soldiers and warships.
Into the fray are tossed the usual suspects- everyone we've come to know and love from the first three books in the series. They're all present and accounted for- Erik Cain (of course, since he's the primary protagonist), his lover Sarah Linden, his mentor and father figure General Elias Holm, his best friend and brother-in-arms Darius Jax, and slightly more distaff characters like Admiral Augustus Cole and his best friend Terrance Compton. In fact, Allan's cast of characters is rapidly expanding, and one thing that becomes obvious from this book is that it's going to be a challenge for him to keep track of all of these characters that he keeps creating and tossing into the mix. This is classic Martin-Rowling Syndrome, and if an author is not careful about pruning the characters within his universe, he will often find that his books sprawl completely out of control and lose any sense of coherence, plot, or comprehensibility very quickly.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) Allan does not appear to have succumbed just yet, because with this book, and to some extent the previous one as well, he has demonstrated that he is perfectly willing to kill off main characters from his universe in order to give his readers the gut-punches that should by rights be part of any great sci-fi series. And he sure as hell delivers with this one, because an important main character is killed off towards the end of the book. (No, I'm not going to tell you which one, wait until I post my review of the next book in the series. Or read it yourself.) There is no question that the death of that character is a catalysing event in the series, because it sets the stage perfectly for the follow-up, The Line Must Hold.
The plot of this book really doesn't bear much commentary beyond what I've already provided; the strength of Jay Allan's writing is, and has always been, his excellent characterisation of his main characters. Allan is most unusual in this regard; his characters exhibit development and personality far beyond what you would expect of the usual sci-fi stereotypes, and as a result his plots, while somewhat predictable, are never boring. The character of Erik Cain in particular is very interesting to watch. He develops from the grass-green, wet-nosed cadet in the first book into a truly stone-cold killing machine, whose ferocity in combat is tempered only by his absolute and unbreakable loyalty to the Corps and to his duty. Reading through Allan's books and his characterisation of Erik Cain, I am reminded very strongly of the way David Weber and Steve White developed the character of Raymond Prescott in The Shiva Option after the death of Prescott's brother- Raymond Prescott essentially becomes a remorseless, cold-blooded avatar of Death incarnate, never venting his grief in public, but never leaving anyone in any doubt that he will let nothing deter him from his purpose and his task. That is precisely what Erik Cain becomes, in this book and even more so in the next- a grim-faced, ruthless embodiment of will and rage encased in flesh that seems almost too frail to hold such power at bay.
There are two major criticisms I have of this book. The first is the same one that I've had for every single book in the series: where the hell is the bloody star map that tells us where everything is?!? Come on, man, it can't be that difficult to draw a map of your universe! The second is that there are several unresolved plot lines that just sort of... stay unresolved. For instance, at the end of the previous book, Gavin Stark, the eeeeeeeevil mastermind of Alliance Intelligence, tells his second-in-command that he wants her to kill Erik Cain. It just so happens that his 2ic is both his lover and the sister to Erik Cain's longtime girlfriend. So, Alex Linden goes to Armstrong, meets her long-lost sister, and... sits there and feels depressed. No, really, that's what actually happens. And then we quickly segue to Erik Cain desperately trying to hold the line against the First Imperium's soldiers. Uh, okay...
The good news is that Allan does actually have some idea as to what he's doing, because those plot lines are further developed in the subsequent books in the series. (Of which there have been two thus far, but we've got another three coming up within the next 9 months, so it's not like it'll be an overly long wait.) It's just that there are a lot of loose ends to tie off. At least Allan has thus far avoided the George R. R. Martin trap of creating waaaaaaay too many useless tertiary characters and then not knowing what the hell he's supposed to do with them; Allan's writing is still taut, precise, and punchy, where Martin's has become bloated, soggy, and about as interesting as a piece of celery.
Overall, this is a solid addition to the canon of the Crimson Worlds series. Personally I think that its follow-up, The Line Must Hold, is actually better, but as expansions of an already-excellent sci-fi universe go, this one is very very good.
Didact's Verdict: 4/5, a couple of loose ends in the plot and a bit of meandering here and there don't stop this from being a damn fine sci-fi novel.
Buy/download The First Imperium here.