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Brass Man

by Neal Asher

(Tor UK, 485 pages, trade paperback, £12.99, April 2005. Tor UK, £17.99, 485 pages, hardback, 29 April 2005. Tor UK, 528 pages, paperback, £6.99, February 2006.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanOutside the line of Polity, on a frontier world called Cull, the knight errant Anderson and his shifty young apprentice Tergal are dragon-hunting. Or perhaps that should be Dragon-hunting. A new arrival threatens to overturn their world: Skellor, back from a previous novel and unimaginably powerful, and with a certain rogue Golem in tow. But they aren't the first monsters on Cull, and when Ian Cormac and friends arrive in pursuit, they have to contend with Skellor, Mr Crane, the vicious native wildlife and a large and enigmatic alien observer familiar to Asher fans.

Nasty flesh-eating monsters: check. Vivid alien world: check. Big smart-arse AIs: check. Slam-bang action fun: check. Yes, it's another book from Neal Asher, who has firmly established himself as a purveyor of intelligent but uncomplicated SF adventure. Asher tends to play to the crowd, but here more than ever as he resurrects fan favourite Mr Crane, the seven foot tall mute schizophrenic Golem from Gridlinked. The problem with Mr Crane and Skellor is that Asher's killed them off before, so the denouement of Brass Man has to be equivalent to jumping up and down on all the little pieces. Reviving them, on the other hand, is no problem at all when you've got Jain technology floating around, and this is something that apparently will be finally addressed in a forthcoming novel.

The focus here is the titular Brass Man -- we find out why Mr Crane collects things, how he was stolen and broken, and what goes on inside his mind. That's not to say the story suffers as a result -- there is as ever plenty going on -- but on the contrary, although this is very much Mr Crane's book he doesn't exactly drive the plot forward, and one suspects at times that the story wouldn't be greatly affected if he wasn't in it. Still, I imagine most readers (myself included) are pleased that he is.

The fun quotient overall is high. The Jack Ketch, one of the ships following Skellor, is particularly good, an AI with a morbid interest in antique methods of execution. Completely ignoring the descriptions given, I like to imagine Vincent Price in the role of his avatar. The major minor characters (so to speak) Anderson and Tergal are entertaining too, and could comfortably carry a book of their own. Their chivalric grappling with the sleers, Cull's giant insect predators, gives a pleasingly hands-on demonstration of the horrors of Asher's trademark deadly fauna. There's also intrigue to be found in Tergal's motives for tagging along with Anderson, which change as he learns more about the knight errant's way of life. And there's a great big "Oo-er" moment near the end when it becomes clear that something interesting is happening to Ian Cormac. Something that might shed light on the shadowy figure of Horace Blegg, perhaps.

Brass Man is another solid chapter in the Ian Cormac saga, with a big slice of crowd-pleasing on the side.

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