Shadow of the Scorpion is another stand alone novel from Night Shade Books (the first was Prador Moon), this time focusing on the early years of Ian Cormac, the ECS agent we all know from the Gridlinked sequence. Neal has taken a character that has gone through many experiences and gone back to the beginning, to see what made IanCormac what he is. The story is told against the backdrop of the end of the Prador war, still ongoing while he was a child and the aftermath to deal with during his ECS training.
Cormac and his two squad mates are stationed on Hagren, a planet near the Graveyard of wrecked worlds from the Prador war. With a Prador dreadnought crashed on the surface they are given the job of routine sentry duty, a task that is considered both mundane and routine. That is until theseparatists try to sneak in and steal a deadly CTD, a bomb with devastating power. With surviving Prador aboard the dreadnought and the separatist threat, Cormac soon finds himself in a dangerous situation and an investigation into the separatist activities, one that leads him to discover just what he's capable of.
During this narrative we are given flashbacks to Cormac's youth, the unusual appearance of a scorpion shaped war drone and the experiences his family go through. Why this drone turns up is a question thatCormac asks himself, and will reveal a secret that has been hidden for years.
I will make no apology about being a huge fan of Neal's work, I love the way he can create believable and hugely enjoyable worlds and his story telling skills are second to none. When I found out that this book was to focus onCormac's earlier life, and that it was to be published by Night Shade Books, I got pretty excited. The excellent Prador Moon was the first collaboration between the two and my only real criticism was the fact that the story was a little on the short side. Of course, there are perfectly good reasons for this, but when I heard Shadow of the Scorpion was out from the same publisher I feared it may be the same situation. There was nothing to worry about though, this is a decent sized novel (although not quite as long as Neal's usual output) and thoroughly enjoyable.
As I've not read all the Cormac novels that Neal has written I can't compare to them, but of the ones I have read (Gridlinked, Line of Polity), this measures up nicely. There are obvious differences between a raw recruit and that of a fully fledged ECS agent, but apart from that Shadow of the Scorpion does a great job introducing a likable and motivated character in Cormac. He's got strengths and weaknesses, but it's his determination and adaptability that shines through here. In fact, all the characters that we meet are very well presented, none come across as shallow or two dimensional and each contribute effectively to the story.
As for the story itself, another winning combination of character development, aliens, action and political undertones. If you like Neal's other stuff then this is a novel you can't miss, but it's also an ideal step on point for those new to Neal's work. I thought this was one of Neal's best to date, and if this is any indication of what to expect from the next few novels, we're all in for a real treat.