23 Years on Fire is the fourth book in Joel Shepherd’s CASSANDRA KRESNOV series, a set of military SF books set several hundred years in future, in a distant galaxy. Cassandra Kresnov, who goes by Sandy, is the commander of the galactic Federal Security Agency, or FSA’s, special operations branch. She is also a GI, a combat-designed 100% synthetic person. Sandy must deal with the prejudices of original humans and her own questions about the destiny and evolution of her “people,” the synthetic soldiers.
The book opens with a wild-ride action sequence as Sandy and a bunch of her friends invade the capital city of a planet named Pyeongwha, and uncover strange, disturbing medical experiments being done on citizens who were defined as dissidents. Back home on the planet of Callay, the galactic capital of the Federation, Sandy and her human friends struggle with negative public opinion about the raid and the cold-war-style manipulations of the League, losers in the multi-planet war that only recently ended with the Federation’s decisive victory. The League invented the GIs, but the Federation offers “high-designation” GIs asylum and some rights. Like Sandy, many “high des” GIs are defecting.
An intelligence officer from the League approaches Sandy with the news that research similar to that on Pyeongwha is being done on a failed-state world in the New Torah system. Following the war, the League abandoned the New Torahn planets and withdrew all financial support, leaving the infrastructure in tatters; picture Bosnia in the 1990s. Sandy has to persuade both her boss the FSA director and the Federation President to let her mount an expedition, but discovery of the FSA’s planned reconnaissance would be viewed as an act of aggression and would heat the war back up. The director and the president are both reluctant, so Sandy takes things into her own hands.
I have not read any of the three previous books, which chart Sandy’s evolution from a League deserter to a trusted upper echelon member of the Federation, or her personal struggle with the role of “skinjobs” or artificial life forms in society. (Read Stefan’s reviews here.) I’m also not a huge fan of military fiction, and I realized as I read this that John Scalzi and Lois McMaster Bujold have both spoiled me for this subgenre. There were several things about 23Years on Fire that I enjoyed, but it was a book that was very easy for me to put down, but a bit of a chore to pick up again.
This series has a lot of “Big Concepts” and I like that. Can Sandy and the other GIs ever become people? What defines “person?” Can they be trusted in a society of regular humans who are so much less powerful than they? Cassandra is female and several of the secondary characters are women soldiers. One, Vanessa, is an augmented human. It is nice to have strong female protagonists. The action sequences, when they happen, are well written, and the last seventy pages of the book are almost non-stop action.
A couple of things dampened my enjoyment of this book. The first was the pacing. Between the attack on Pyeonewha (and I don’t know why Shepherd didn’t just call it North Korea in Space), and the tumultuous battle on the New Torahn planet of Pantala is a long stretch in Callay’s capital city, where people sit around and talk, go to parties, complain about journalists and civilians and occasionally get blown up by League agents posing as terrorists. There is very little emotional or political aftermath to two such attacks, and in both cases the aftermath is addressed off-stage. The long middle section of the book seemed very slack to me, until we were on Pantala with Sandy.
Sandy is the other problem. She’s less of a “Mary Sue” to me than a “Mary Superwoman.” Of course her physical and mental properties are off the charts because that’s how she was designed, but she can also effortlessly write code, hack any planetary network, take over anything, win over any opponent in a discussion or debate by the sheer brilliance of her logic and cook delicious curry. She’s gorgeous, she’s hot and she’s an awesome dancer.
Sandy is invulnerable; even when she is ambushed and drugged on Pantala, she never seems to be in much danger. Sandy’s shield of invulnerability extends to Vanessa, Ari and Rhian, her friends. When people close to Sandy are hurt as part of a League attack, they are red-shirt characters, brought in for that one scene only, killed or injured off-stage. No one she cares about ever seems to be in actual danger. Even when members of her team are killed on Pantala, we never see a death, and it seems like those characters were more acquaintances than friends.
Sandy’s actions to convince Ibrahim, her director, and the president that she should get her way on Pantala are wildly inappropriate. In order to make her point, she disregards a direct order and then “resigns.” Her subsequent actions should have convinced Ibrahim and the president that Sandy’s only loyalty is to “her people,” the GIs, and that she is completely untrustworthy within the Federation government. Instead, they reinstate her and send her on the mission. There are no consequences for her shenanigans. It was hard for me to get past that.
In the final battle scene on Pantala, Shepherd brings in a deus ex machina to shift the balance of power so that Sandy and her folks win.
On the plus side, what Sandy and her friends uncover after the battle of Pantala is totally believable, with some good implications for a continued series. The god-like being who appears at the last minute to help out our heroes does have a vested income in the Federation making this discovery. It was just that, like the long stretch in the middle, the timing with which he was introduced made him much too convenient and unlikely.
23 Years on Fire did not read like the first book of a new trilogy; more like the transitional book in a longer series. As such, it’s not a good place to start. I didn’t care for the character or the pacing enough to go track down the first three, but I think readers of military SF, especially those who like strong women characters, might find this series enjoyable.
Cassandra Kresnov — (2006-2015) Publisher: The League’s GIs are purpose built soldiers, inflexible fighting androids — Cassandra (Sandy) is a special, experimental model. She has a personality and mental flexibility; an ability to learn. She is not controllable as are the older GIs. But Sandy is captured by the Federation who want to use her for research.