Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher
Shadow of the Scorpion (2008) is the fifth in Neal Asher’s AGENT CORMAC subseries, but first in terms of internal chronology, and second in the overall chronology of the POLITY series. Describing the events of Cormac’s youth, as well as his first years training as a soldier, it reveals how he came to be in Sparkind and involved in so much graphic, rip-roaring action across the Prador-infested galaxy.
Split into two storylines, one half of Shadow of the Scorpion describes Cormac’s childhood with his mother, brother, and father at the forefront of the war with the Prador. Because his brother is doctor, Cormac learns secondhand about the horrors of war, but it isn’t until he becomes a man that he learns just how much more horrific it can be firsthand. The second half of the novel is classic soldier-in-training material that develops into all-out special agent action as a splinter group of humans complicate the war with the Pradors by attempting a separatist revolution.
Despite its being a prequel, I would not recommend starting with Shadow of the Scorpion if looking to read Asher for the first time or jump into the AGENT CORMAC series. While the novel stands on its own and the reader has the important details filled in, Cormac’s youth takes on more meaning in the context of having a couple of the other novels under your belt. Thus, for those who have read other Cormac novels, this novel may offer an extra degree of appreciation.
If I were Paul di Filippo or Damien Broderick, I’m not sure that Shadow of the Scorpion is the Neal Asher novel I would have chosen to recognize in Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010. An average novel, it has weaknesses in comparison to other, better, more coherent works in Asher’s oeuvre. The Skinner, Cowl, and Gridlinked, for example, show tighter focus and more attention to organic plotting — as much as the term applies in futuristic action-dramas. That being said, fans of Asher’s work will probably still enjoy the novel, as well as fans of grimdark space opera in general. Possessing a dash of sex and a lot of military violence, it’s a mainstream effort that will please if your expectations aren’t too high.