For quite a few years now, the novels of Catherine Asaro have been recommended to me by various other readers of science fiction. I became more interested when I discovered that she had a degree in physics, and it seems, knew what she was talking about. That's always a plus, especially when it comes to creating a belivable fictional world.
The time is the near future, about 2030 or so, and Sam Bryton has fled to the quiet of the northern California coast to escape the more privileged world that she has lived in. Now she just wants to be alone in the redwoods, but that will change when a young man washes up on the beach below her home.
Turner Pascal is a mystery. He's had part of his body replaced by cybernetic limbs -- and part of his brain refitted with electronic matrices. He's unlike anyone or anything that Sam has worked with before, his abilities going far beyond the simple everyday cat-bots and mech-bots, and the more complex AI's and EI's that are begining to be developed. And his story is wilder than anything that Sam can believe.
Having run away from a mysterious entity called Charon, Turner is technically, and legally, dead, and now appears to be both man and machine. He has come to Sam to see if she can return him to his human state -- and if she can't do that, then at least see to it that Charon is stopped before he creates any more blends of humans and machines. The only place they know of to run to is the rumored Sunrise Alley, where robotics and androids are said to be in peaceful co-existance with humans. If it even exists.
But before Sam can actually do anything to help, sure enough, Charon is already making moves to have Turner back in his grasp. Soon, the novel turns into what I think of as a 'chase' story -- hero and heroine are on the run, stealing vehicles, being captured by and escaping from various bad guys, and get emotionally entangled before the requisite happy ending where all is resolved. While there are flashes of humor here and there within the story, the general tone is rather depressing -- and sadly, that leads to a rather stultifying read.
Sam is determined and spunky, not to mention young-looking and svelte for a woman in her forties. Indeed, she is so good at what she does that she skirts along into the dreaded 'Mary-Sue,' a thinly veiled avatar of the writer herself. Turner, for his part, is mostly a 'little boy lost,' and while it's interesting to see him growing and changing, he too quickly becomes a supercharacter, which is not that much fun to read about either.
Asaro can write a quickly paced thriller, and her use of modern cyber-science is certainly believable. While she does slide into 'explainitis' every now and then, she's able to keep most of the techno-babble down to a minimum, and does manage to create a world where machines and humans are starting to approach the same level of sophistication and communication. Asaro isn't afraid to explore some moral and ethical questions about cybernetics as well, which helped to create some depth to the story.
The sad part is that the story never quite seems to get above the lukewarm stage. Several extra characters have some interesting qualities and dispositions -- Charon's henchmen, Alpha and Hud, along with Sam's uncle, an Air Force general -- but they are certainly not enough to help the story move beyond what is a romance with science fiction trimmings.
And that's the real disappointment of this novel. It could have been so much more. Instead, Asaro took the cheap and easy way out. Pity, as I suspect that there is an author of some talent here, if she would only focus a bit more tightly on her story instead of sliding into old, tried plot tricks. What was especially annoying was the revealation of who Charon was, and it was at that point where the story fell apart for me, and I couldn't wait for it to end.
There is a sequel, entitled Alpha, that has been released in hardcover in September 2006, and due for mass market paperback in November 2007. Will I go so far as to read it -- after taking in the preview in Sunrise Alley, I'm rather doubtful.
Three stars, and a somewhat recommend.