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Although the story doesn't start in medias res, the world you've entered is very challenging and Asher doesn't give you a lot of time to swallow back past history or current situations. His style is plot-thick and character-thin, while trying to beat out a multiple point-of-view that gets away from him quite regularly, because it is hard to keep the action stowed from the previous installments. He also has an affection for the BEWB instrument—baffle ‘em with bullshit--when he's impatient to get through the “how's” & “why's” of a technology/society/ecology. Or, as one character says, “'long thoughts', because if you think too deep you lose sight of the point” (The Skinner, Tor HB, US edition, ISBN 0765307375, c.2002, p.309).
But, wow, the points. Asher is full to the brim with ideas blooming into wild, thrashing, bursting visualizations. In this, he can be likened to China Mieville, but Asher is truly his own skipper. His fancy is a kaleidoscope of visceral conceptualizations, the basis being the planet Spatterjay's leeches that devour everything they can, and, in the process, transmit a virus that grants virtual immortality to those who survive. This creates an oceanic world of seething violence, continuous death, and some very arresting mutations.
The pace is smokin' and keeps you turning pages, although it's hard to keep the Old Captains straight in the beginning. And, exactly who is Janer other than a puppet for the Hive? He's an awfully major character to have no face or grounding. Same could be said of Erlin, except she's at least battening down the love interest position.
But squeezing out of the seams are many servicable character inventions like WindCheater, Sniper, Frisk, and good ‘ol Hoop the Head, not to mention the absolute inhospitable creatures of this water world. What starts out like a fascinating yet puzzling journey through an alien ecology quickly turns into the Princess Cruise from Hell. The Skinner is full of guts ‘n glory and a fine addition to the anti-Tolkein fantasy trend.
The Voyage of the Sable Keech (Tor HB, UK edition, ISBN 1405001402, c.2006), follows in its wake and adds even more enigmatic characters to the cruise. Along with the Old Captains—Capt'n Ron runs most of the action here, but they're all pretty much Superman sticks sans flight, except for Orbus, who is a one-dimensional billboard reading “sadist”—Janer, Erlin, Sniper and the Warden with his sub-mined drones join this sea quest ten years after the action of the previous novel. The most visible newbies are 2 Golem—Isis Wade and the sail Zephyr, who are very uniquely linked—and Taylor Bloc, a murdered bazillionaire who has been re-animated by transferring his memory to crystal then installed into a mechanical-synthetic armature resembling human form. They're called “reifications” (Sable Keech, p.16) and Bloc has commissioned the building of a great sail ship aptly named the Sable Keech to take himself and a bunch of these undead to an island where previously its namesake—that centuries-old policeman from The Skinner —got resurrected into a real flesh-and-blood, spume-in-your-face entity. There is also a very nasty Prador who we've met before named Vrell, but now he's fully grown and a formidable enemy of everybody who wants to stay alive on Spatterjay, including a giant female whelk who's suddenly become sentient and has developed a devouring arousal for Erlin, Hooper ships and their crew. Then there's the Hooder, the Godzilla of invertebrates.
Confused? Believe me, the ride is so much fun, you won't really care. These are good vacation books, in that it's better to read them in long segments so you won't as easily forget who's who and what's happened. But, if you need refreshing—especially back to the action of The Skinner --here's some synopses:
This installment into the Polity universe—Asher has written other adventures in these future worlds like Gridlinked, Line of Polity, and Prador Moon, but I haven't read them—seems a little friendlier with explanations of techno-trinkets like nanofactory changers (Sable Keech, p.61) and spider thralls (Sable Keech, p.100). But if you're looking for any immortality-themed ponderances about this “age when you can choose your route to eternal youth” (Sable Keech, p.15), it's pretty shallow waters. Probably the best summation is this exchange between Captain Ron and Isis Wade: