Like many, I was taken by surprise when an ARC of 23 Years on Fire showed up in my mailbox last year. And I was quite pleased to discover that the novel was no mere sequel released to please fans of the first trilogy. The book opened up the door for a variety of new possibilities and added more depth to what I consider an already multilayered overall story arc. It was everything the original series was and then some! So when Operation Shield reached me, it immediately went to the top of my pile of books to read.
I'm happy to report that Joel Shepherd raised the bar even higher in this one, setting the stage for a lot more to come!
Here's the blurb:
Part military SF, part cyberpunk, part grand-scale space opera, and part techno-psychological thriller, the Cassandra Kresnov novels transcend the recently narrow segmentation of the science fiction genre. In 23 Years on Fire, Cassandra discovered that the technology that created her has been misused in her former home and now threatens all humanity with catastrophe. Returning home to Callay, she finds that Federation member worlds, exhausted by the previous thirty-year-war against the League, are unwilling to risk the confrontation that a solution may require. Some of these forces will go to any lengths to avoid a new conflict, including taking a sledgehammer to the Federation Constitution and threatening the removal by force of Cassandra's own branch of the Federal Security Agency. More frighteningly for Sandy, she has brought back to Callay three young children, whom she met on the mean streets of Droze, discovering maternal feelings she had not known she possessed. Can she reconcile her duty as a soldier, including what she must do as a tactician, with the dangers that those decisions will place upon her family-the one thing that has come to mean more to her than any cause she now believes in?
Worldbuilding played a much bigger role in 23 Years on Fire than in the first three volumes. It is now obvious that Shepherd was laying a lot of the groundwork upon which future installments would be built. I felt that 23 Years on Fire would serve as a bridge between the original trilogy and what came after, and it's evident that it was indeed a transition book. As is his wont, Joel Shepherd serves up another intricate and well-crafted plot that reads like a blend of political thriller and fast-paced science fiction adventure. And yet, political intrigue is definitely at the heart of this one. The coup and its aftermath make up for the better part of the book, and as such I felt that the overall story arc didn't appear to progress as much as I thought it would. Still, the coup and its repercussions will most probably influence how everything that will follow will come together.
Understandably, Cassandra Kresnov takes center stage once more. Ari and Vanessa also number among the POV protagonists. Cassandra's moral awakening continues to be a fascinating facet to follow and I liked how Shepherd raised even more philosophical issues through her character. How she copes with her developing "motherhood," now that she is the legal guardian of Danya, Svetlana, and Kiril, makes for some interesting character growth. The emancipation of sentient androids remains a central theme and those "human rights" issues play a key role throughout Operation Shield.
As was the case with its predecessor, this fifth volume occasionally suffers from uneven pacing. It starts with a bang and goes all out for a while and it ends in the same fashion. Yet the political/military coup means that politicking turns out to be the most important aspect of this novel, which has a tendency to break the faster-paced rhythm Shepherd has accustomed us to in the past, especially in the middle portion of the book. There is indeed a great disparity between the thrilling balls-to-the-wall battle scenes and the sequences focusing more on political intrigue and character development. And although some parts of Operation Shield are plagued by an inconsistent pace, the way the author brings it all together at the end demonstrates that it was a necessary evil for the storylines to have any sort of impact.
Joel Shepherd keeps on pushing the envelope with his smart, entertaining, and action-packed science fiction novels! Operation Shield is a worthy addition to an excellent series that keeps getting better and better with each new volume!