Jeffrey Thomas' Blue War is a highly enjoyable novel that is hard to categorize as it blends a number of sub-genres into a thoroughly engaging whole. Being another of Thomas' Punktown stories, it has the urban-punk feel familiar to readers of China Mieville and William Gibson. And with the return of Jeremy Stake, the chameleon-like war veteran turned private investigator of his previous novel Deadstock, it has the gritty detective feel of Dashiell Hammet in a sci-fi setting. Add in a dose of a Michael Crichton cautionary techno-tale and you'll approach what there is to find in Blue War.
Chronologically, Blue War takes place shortly after the events of Deadstock and while Blue War could work as a stand-alone novel, it really works better if you've read Deadstock first. One of the things about Thomas' world of Punktown that makes it stand above others is that it - and the characters who inhabit it - all have history, and Thomas does a wonderful job of bringing this out in his descriptions:
"The men and women sheltering in the gloom of the Legion of Veterans' Post 69 ranged in age from early thirties to there-are-still-people-alive-from-that-war? The bartender was a veteran of the Red War, which had cost him an arm, replaced with a black prosthesis like something grafted on from a giant beetle. Watt was a Choom, one of the indigenous people of this planet, Oasis, though most of the Earth people in the colony city dubbed Punktown had been born here, too, as had their parents and even grandparents. To all appearances Watt was human, aside from the wide mouth carved back to his ears, giving his broad face a bit of a frog-like aspect. He was, however, rather more dangerous-looking than a frog.
--Seated in the post were a couple of Punktown servicemen who had been deployed to the world of Echo, part of a raid on the colony city of Oracle. A group of Red Jihad extremists had captured and sabotaged the atmosphere control facilities there, resulting in the death of 37,000 colonists. One of these vets, named Isaiah, cried a lot when he'd had a few Knickersons too many, recounting the numbers of suffocated children he had seen throughout the colony, strewn everywhere like placid-faced dolls.
--There were the brothers, Bobby and Wally, slouched over the bar in shiny blue jackets and faded baseball hats, all covered in glittering pins and embroidered patches indicating that they'd been crewmen aboard two military starcraft in the same fleet. They were withered and cantankerous and intent on claiming their explosive space battles made every other vet's war look like a picnic in the park. Gnome-like Bobby frequently came close to blows with younger vets, infantrymen bristling at the suggestion that their ground combat could be less hellish than what this old-timer had experienced from inside his massive warship. They always restrained themselves, however, having heard that his brother Wally had once smashed the jaw of a drunken vet twenty years younger than himself, in this very bar. Not to mention that Watt was quick to break up trouble, and that plastic beetle claw could grip you by the back of the neck good and hard on your way out the door.
--Two black men with shaved skulls, a branded insignia on their foreheads and metallic silver bar code on the back of their necks, had been coming in to sit at one end of the bar for a few months now. No one knew what war or conflict they'd been in, and they didn't volunteer it. Maybe Watt knew, but he was discreet. They spoke to no one, not even each other, just sipped their Zubs and watched the big VT screen mounted on the walls. Their polished domes reflected the blue of a holographic sign that read: 'Zub... for a mellow buz!' "
In this novel, Stake, a veteran of a war known as the Blue War that took place on an alien world called Sinan, a war that ended eleven years ago, is called on by an old army buddy who wants him to go back to Sinan to help solve a mystery that is threatening to unravel the peace that has held there for eleven years. A seemingly harmless Jin Haa urbanization project involving "smart matter" technology that allows a city to basically grow itself has gone wildly out of control, spilling across the border into Ha Jiin territory and swallowing up vast swathes of land. To make matters stranger still, the city has apparently created a living clone of a human, something it was not designed to do. Henderson needs Stake to try and find out what has gone wrong, and who this unknown clone child was made from, before war breaks out again. As as anyone who has read Deadstock will know, Stake himself has some unresolved history with his enemy/lover of his previous time on Sinan, the beautiful - and deadly - blue-skinned "Earth Killer", Thi Gonh.
One of the things I particularly like about Thomas' characters is that they are not black or white. They have their flaws, their baggage, and in many cases their conflicts, both in themselves and with others. All of which make them all the more real, and what happens to them will matter to the reader.
And as in Deadstock, there are a number of highly imaginative creations that are sprinkled throughout Blue War: benders (imagine Portugese Man-o-War's that can float through the air and kill you in ways you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy), snipes (no, these aren't imaginary though you'll wish they were if you run into them), rust art, Wonky Science, smart matter, and others.
All in all, Blue War works on a number of levels; quite an achievement for such an ambitious blending of genres. And, without giving anything away, one can only hope that there will be more, of Stake, of Thi, and of Punktown in general. Highly recommended.