This novel is more tightly written than some of Saberhagen's other Berserker novels -- more concise and faster moving. The plotting is really skillful. Under the experienced pen of the author, the plot of this book "turns around" to bite the reader in an almost shocking way.
Saberhagen "sets up" the reader from the first page with lots of scattered evidence that is subject to lots of interpretation. The bare facts are these: women and children have been kidnapped by the berserkers. As Harry Winston and his boss Winston Cheng puzzle over the evidence, weighing facts against facts, they work out a pretty sound theory of what has happened and why. Using their assumptions, Harry and Cheng assemble a team and devise a plan to rescue the hostages. The whole rescue mission, which is at the center of the book, is based upon this reconstruction of what really happened. Who did the kidnappings? Why? What will become of the hostages? Where were they taken?
In this respect, the novel takes on some of the suspense of a good mystery novel. And yet the author wisely plants some seeds of doubt. Harry Silver's logic wars with his instincts. "That HAS to be what happened . . . but it somehow doesn't 'smell' right." Have Harry and Cheng built a house of cards?
A blur of shocking and violent events bursts upon the reader at the end of Chapter 12 -- about two-thirds of the way through the book. As Lawrence Durrell once put it, "take but a step to the east or the west and the entire picture changes." It turns out that every key assumption of Silver and Chang was WRONG.
As weapons blaze, as his friends are dying, and as his installation is being blown apart, Harry realizes with a kind of horror that his whole picture -- everything -- was based on wrong interpretations. Some of his brothers in arms, on whom he was depending, turn out to be arch-villains, and the berserkers whom he thought he understood are acting in inexplicable ways, beyond anything Harry could have expected. Furthermore, the hostages are not where everyone assumed they were. The kidnappers are not the ones that everyone "knew" were guilty. Lastly, characters who up until now have seemed inconsequential and even silly suddenly become key and central players in the novel.
The author has managed all of this so skillfully. The plotting is almost brilliant. It is like one of those "gestalt" drawings where a picture seems to change from a lady's hat to a duck. The author takes the same evidence and lays it out in a different pattern. And, suddenly everything is up for grabs.
Harry improvises, recruiting the most improbable allies, making it up as he goes along.
When he blasts his way finally into the fortress and releases the hostages, one of them says, "where are all the others? The other rescuers?" Harry said, "I'm it. There's no one else. I'm the only one that's still alive." What a story!
The characters are marvelous. The book is full of robots or androids of one type or another, and a number of interesting human characters as well. Even though "we all know" that berserkers are unreflective killing machines, you will be surprised to find a few in this book who behave in the most extraordinary ways, reinterpreting their prime directive to make the most aberrant actions seem "logical." Motivation of these berserkers is crafted as skillfully as in Issac Asimov's masterpiece "The Naked Sun."
Saberhagen sometimes evokes Asimov. Asimov's robots relied upon their 'positronic' brains. Saberhagen's rely on their 'optelectronic' brains. Both Asimov and Saberhagen have so much fun warping and parsing their robotic "prime directives." The reader thinks, "robots can't act that way." but -- they can! They do! Because they think in their OWN eerie way!
Heck-- just READ IT. It's about as good as a shoot-em-up space novel is ever going to get.