Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

Cassandra Kresnov series by Joel Shepherd

(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 50, Jan 2009)

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Crossover by Joel Shepherd
Pyr, 2006. 459 pages

Breakaway by Joel Shepherd
Pyr, 2007. 427 pages

Killswitch by Joel Shepherd
Pyr, 2007. 451 pages

Artificial humans abound in science fiction, from Karel Capek’s R.U.R. and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the present day. Robots and androids and their ilk have become a trope in SF. Originality in such a situation lies not in coming up with something completely new, but in how one uses traditional SF elements.

Thus it may be helpful to say what Australian author Joel Shepherd’s Cassandra Kresnov series is not. Although there are occasional philosophical discussions in the books, they are not a meditation on the meaning of humanity as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Although the series has its “android-on-the-run” moments, its world is not the brooding dystopia of “Blade Runner.” Although intrigue and cyberspace both play a role in Shepherd’s novels, they are not an exercise in paranoia such as anime’s “Ghost in the Shell.”

Instead, the Cassandra Kresnov series is military SF, “space opera” in the action-adventure sense of the term. Shepherd’s future is a bright and happy place, at least on the planet Callay where the novels are set. There are, of course, dark forces that threaten this happiness, both from within and without, but the main character and her allies are able to rise to the occasion to defend the planet from each new threat.

The first novel, Crossover, introduces us to Captain Cassandra Kresnov, Sandy as she is known to her friends. She is a GI, an artificial person created by the population-deficient but technologically superior League to fight in its war with the more conservative Federation. When the war comes to a close, Sandy defects to the Federation and is looking for employment under a false name in the Callay capital city of Tanusha. But the old guards of both the League and the Federation have reasons to want Sandy, both for the secrets in her head and the technological advances she embodies.

When she thwarts an assassination attempt on the Callayan president, Sandy finds herself embroiled not only in her own struggle from freedom and survival, but in politics on an interplanetary level. She also finds friends in the leader of one of Tanusha’s few SWAT teams, Lt. Vanessa Rice, and in the head of the Callayan Security Authority, Shan Ibrahim. With President Katia Neiland, these remain Sandy’s strongest allies throughout the series.

The second novel, Breakaway, set three months after the events in Crossover, sees Sandy finding her way in Tanushan society. She has legal status and a place on Vanessa’s SWAT team. But the political forces her presence set in motion have led to a referendum on Callay breaking away from the Federation. Sandy’s personal life again intersects with interplanetary politics as she attempts to keep terrorists and outside interests from interfering in Callayan politics. To further complicate matters, a delegation from the League has recently arrived in Tanusha. Do they truly represent a change in League policies, or are they merely attempting to lure Sandy back into the League’s fold?

The third novel, Killswitch, is set two years after Breakaway. Callay has stayed in the Federation, but on the condition that the Federation capital be moved from Earth to Callay. This has understandably caused friction. A faction of Fleet captains threaten to blockade the planet. All Callay has to oppose the Fleet is the nascent Callayan Defense Force, whose second-in-command is our own Cassandra Kresnov. But when Sandy’s lover, Special Agent Ari Ruben, discovers a plot to kill her using a killswitch the League built into her brainstem, she is forced to go underground just to stay alive.

Mr. Shepherd masterfully interweaves Sandy’s personal story with the presentation of a richly detailed future galaxy. In the course of the series, we get tantalizing glimpses of a future that is (refreshingly) not Eurocentric. The Federation has a strong Indian influence, with strong Arabic and African subcultures. Indeed, one of the points of Callayan politics seems to be finding a way for all cultures to have a voice. The technocratic League has a strongly Chinese cast, to grossly oversimplify.
For me, it was hard not to read at least parts of the politics of the story as a Southern Hemisphere commentary on 21st-century globalization, with the Federation as a stand-in for the U.S., the League for China, and Callay for Australia. Such a reading may just be interpolation on my part, but it points to how well developed and plausible Shepherd’s future history is.

More importantly, the politics never get in the way of the action.

I find the Cassandra Kresnov series to be well written, in the highest sense of the term: the author’s prose is completely transparent to the story. Shepherd’s training in film tells to good effect. He makes complicated action sequences very “watchable,” and I know I’m not the only one who would love to see a Cassandra Kresnov movie. I did on occasion have some difficulty visualizing his presentation of cyberspace. But that could well be a fault of my own imagination.

Crossover and Breakaway were first published in Shepherd’s native Australia, where they were short-listed in 1998 and 1999 for the George Turner Prize. I’m not sure why the U.S. edition was picked up by a smaller house like Pyr (the Australian editions are by HarperCollins, Australia’s imprint, Voyager), but it seems to have done very well by the company. My copy of Crossover indicates it is in at least its third printing, and starting in 2009, Pyr is issuing mass-market paperbacks of the series. This marks Pyr’s first foray into this format.

For fans of military SF and action-adventure SF with strong female characters, the Cassandra Kresnov series is not to be missed. I hope there will be many more volumes to come.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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