Breakaway, the second Cassandra Kresnov novel by Australian SF and fantasy author Joel Shepherd, picks up soon after the ending of series opener Crossover. Sandy, a highly advanced artificial human with military training, is now attached to a squad of SWAT agents, while also helping the government of Callay review its network security. Despite the sensitive nature of this work, and her ongoing integration into Callay society, many political and religious factions still take issue with her presence. After the heavy-handed way in which the Federation handled the crisis described in Crossover, Callay is now reconsidering its relationship with the Earth-based federal government. Sandy is stuck right in the middle of this hotbed, living in a society that is religiously, politically and morally trying to come to terms with what she is and what she represents.
The novel starts off with a bang, throwing us right into a spectacular action scene with fascinating new side character Ari Ruben, then slows down noticeably with a description of Sandy enjoying the waves during a surfing trip on a day off. This rhythm of alternating breathless action scenes with slower-paced descriptions of local color and daily life continues throughout Breakaway. Add to that a continued in-depth focus on the political set-up of Callay in particular and the Federation and League in general, and you may occasionally have the feeling that this is a stop-and-go novel, lurching from high-octane action scenes to slower-paced, even meditative scenes and dialogues focusing on the sociological and political underpinnings of the story. While I found that Joel Shepherd handled this two-speed narrative less effectively in this novel than in Crossover, making Breakaway less of a compulsive page-turner than its predecessor, this is still an immensely entertaining read.
Part of the enjoyment of reading Breakaway is the fact that many of the side-characters become more three-dimensional in this second novel. While some of them were a bit flat and interchangeable in Crossover — although that may be because the fast-paced plot of that novel just didn’t allow much time for deeper characterization aside from the protagonist — several of Sandy’s colleagues and acquaintances gain some welcome depth here, with some entertaining (and occasionally raunchy) banter between Sandy and SWAT team leader Vanessa Rice, as well as some great dialogue between Sandy and her Director, Ibrahim.
Another aspect of the series that gets fleshed out in Breakaway is the history of its fictional universe, with some welcome info about the events that took place in the handful of centuries between our present day and the novels’ setting, including an explanation for the interesting ethnic population mix in the Cassandra Kresnov series, and some of the history between the League and the Federation. We also get more tantalizing looks at the city of Tanusha, for my money one of the most desirable fictional locations to live in: an expertly designed boomtown of 57 million inhabitants without a true city center, instead consisting of multiple hubs, built around one mega-highrise each — like a patchwork quilt of urban centers, each with its own individual flavor, all connected by public transportation. You can find an interesting article by Joel Shepherd about the sociological underpinnings of Callay and Tanusha at his blog.
With its focus on terrorism, political pettiness and religious intolerance, Breakaway (originally published in 2003 in Australia) may in some ways be a child of its time, written in the historical shadow of 9/11 and the 2002 Bali bombings. Joel Shepherd wraps these themes in a gripping SF story, set in an increasingly solid SF universe, and filled with believable characters and nail-biter action scenes. If you enjoyed Crossover and are willing to forgive some pacing issues, you’ll find Breakaway a solid second novel in a fascinating trilogy.
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.