I'm no stranger to long running book series, even if the longest I've read is most of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. However, I don't think I've ever come into a book series from anywhere but the start, until Dark Intelligence. It's the first book in a series within an multi-series known as the Polity universe. And it's good, I liked it, but there are parts that made me question whether I'm missing something because I'm walking in on a movie part-way through, or because it's the first in a series that will continue beyond the bounds of the novel.
Dark Intelligence is about Penny Royal. Penny Royal is a "black AI", an artificial intelligence that turned against the Polity, committing crimes against its citizens and worse. Penny Royal, it's told, touched a lot of lives in the century since he (AI have genders in Dark Intelligence) went black. The story follows some of those lives as they find themselves either hunting Penny Royal, or being manipulated by him, or both.
The main character, whose chapters are written in the first-person perspective while all others are written in the third, is Thorvald Spear. Spear's got a a grudge against Penny Royal ever since the black AI turned against his unit during the war against the Prador (a race of giant crabs) and killed him a century ago. Through the magic of technology, he finds himself resurrected post-war, and goes out to find and destroy Penny Royal. With similar motives, the AI is also sought out by a crime lord, a Prador captain, and an assassin drone.
As I said earlier, this might be the first time I've come into a book universe without starting from the beginning, so it was odd to me that Spear was immediately set upon by a cat-like woman, seduced by her, and then the woman disappears for the rest of the novel without much explanation for the encounter at all. In fact, having been resurrected a century after your death and having sex with the first woman that approaches you at the bar sounds like a particularly bad idea! Maybe she was a bigger figure in previous novels. Maybe not and this scene was written to set some future plots in motion. Another sex scene occurs near the end of the novel, and I can't help but shake the feeling that they were included just to make sure this already mature novel earned a solid R rating in its movie adaptation (that's a metaphor, I don't know if there's a movie coming). It's not that they're poorly written, but that they seem sudden and out of place with the rest of the novel.
But beyond those seemingly out of place scenes, Dark Intelligence was a real enjoyable read. There are other characters and locations that speak to a universe larger than what I read, and what I read makes me want to go back through those previous novels. Dark Intelligence had a lot of things I like in my sci-fi: planet hopping, space ships, evil AI, inscrutable aliens, war-like aliens, human augmentation, biological warfare, and some body horror. It's got a touch of cyberpunk and a touch of biopunk. There are enough blurred lines that I spent most of the story questioning whether or not Penny Royal was the monster that everyone else in the story made him out to be. It's a story that kept me guessing at the AI's motives, even if the rest of his pursuers were seemingly more clear cut.
Dark Intelligence is the first of the Transformation series within the Polity universe, and I'm officially looking forward to the next book. It's solid sci-fi combined with excellent universe building kept me interested from the start.
Baseline Assessment: 8/10
Bonuses: +1 excellently employed sci-fi tropes
Penalties: -1 sex scenes that don't really contribute much to the story
Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 (Well worth your time and attention)
POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014
Reference: Asher, Neal. Dark Intelligence [Night Shade Books, 2015]
2021 Hugo Award Winner: Best Fanzine / 2023 Ignyte Award Finalist: Critics Award
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