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Crossover: A Cassandra Kresnov Novel by Joel Shepherd
Review by Ernest Lilley
Pyr Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1591024439
Date: August, 2006 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

April Cassidy is in the process of trading up from one successful job as a cognitive software expert to a better one, just as soon as she decides which offer she'll wind up taking. She's got money, brains and beauty, and her biggest problem seems to be that room service keeps showing up three minutes late. Though we should probably mention the nightmares from her former life as an engineered life form and combat leader in the war against the Federation. A war she stepped out of after her squad was killed and she began to consider the value of her role. Unfortunately for her, but a boon to the reader, neither her adopted persona nor the distance she's traveled will keep the fairy tale she's created for herself from crumbling around her.

Sidebar: Ghost in the Shell

There are a few things I'd like to get off my chest before getting onto the story. Number one should no doubt be that Crossover is a terrific read, and all the more so for a first novel. I'd almost passed on it because I'm getting more than a bit tired of black clad gals against gritty future urban backdrops, but the words "artificial person" in the book description piqued my interest just long enough to get to the action, and then it was all over for me.

The second thing I'm dying to say is that if you're a fan of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell manga or anime, which I am, you'll find it pretty much impossible not to superimpose the voices from the cyborg supercops of Section Nine onto the CSA squad and the military android that falls into their laps, GI-5074J-HK, aka Cassandra Kresnov. Not that this is a bad thing. But it is a thing. If you're not familiar with GitS, you could watch this trailer for the Standalone Complex series at: ghostintheshell.tv. Although I'm probably alone in this, my only complaint about the project is that I wish the Major would put some clothes on, because there's some excellent SF there, and even in anime...she's kind of distracting. Ok, now, back to Crossover.

The first chapter is slow, and you've just got to trust the author long enough to get to the action. It's not bad, but it spends way too many pages setting up Cassandra's false civilian identity, which gets spectacularly blown by the end of the chapter anyway. As promised though, the action comes fast and hot by the end and never lets up thereafter.

Cassandra's cover gets cracked by the FIA (Federal Intelligence Agency) who promptly starts to cut her up to find out what makes her tick. By the time the CSA (Callaryan Security Agency) aka the "locals", bust in on their party she's just a pile of bloody parts and a cyberbrain nearing terminal shutdown. Fortunately she's a better design than Humpty Dumpty, because all of the CSA's horses and men are just able to put her back together again. The SWAT team leader that pulls "Sandy" out is Vanessa Rice, who is about the closest thing the city has to a combat soldier, and as the CSA tries to unravel the FIA's involvement the two become close friends.

Sandy quickly finds that having all her pieces back together again doesn't mean getting her freedom too. Not when she's the most lethal killing machine within a parsec or three, no matter that she went to great lengths to escape her life as a League super-soldier to settle down as a civilian in the Federation, which the League happens to be at war with. But seriously, with bones made out of starship hull metal, muscles that come from powered armor and reflexes that literally let her blur into motion...what more could she expect? Well, she's only twelve, at least in combat android years.

The downside of android killing machines had previously been that they were fast, deadly, and unimaginative. So Sandy's creators made themselves what amounted to a cyber-clone which models human design in every aspect, from form to fear and ready to fight or love as the situation moves her. As far as she's concerned she's just as human as anyone else, only raised to the power of x, where x is not a small number. So it's not unreasonable that Sandy makes the CSA nervous, and it's not until she single handedly defeats a major assassination attempt that they decide, well, are forced really, to trust her. She didn't duck out on the League to become anyone's RoboCop, but it beats staying drugged and restrained in a high security hospital ward. So suddenly she goes from being a prisoner to armed and even more dangerous than usual, which is good because she's up against a covert operation run by the best of the best, another hunter killer superdroid, and probably someone she knew. Which surprises her, since she'd thought everyone she knew was dead, which was why she'd stopped being a soldier anyway.

Now finding herself back in harness, and developing attachments to the soldiers and civilians around her, she's about to discover that freedom really is another word for nothing left to lose. No matter how bulletproof she may be, the deepest cuts don't come from weapons, and Cassandra has been already been cut to the bone.

I liked Crossover both for the hot cyber combat action and the chunks of exposition that the author drops from time to time. Call it perverse, but I think the discussion of technology and philosophy is one of the things that makes SF more interesting than mainstream fiction. As a result I'm all for spending a few paragraphs or even a page or two musing about the humanity of machines, or the cultural subtext of warfare, or why androids need breasts. A more aggressive editor might have trimmed this book back a bit, but I'm glad it didn't happen. The author, Joel Shepherd, is Australian, but he's evidentially traveled quite a bit around Asia, working in part for a family firm selling Australian books to international schools. This lends a solid feel to his integration of Indian, Chinese, and Arab characters into the story, and his future world of Callay is a nicely balanced myriad of cultures. The head of CSA security, Ibrahim, is a Sunni Muslim, and the kind of tolerant, thoughtful character I'd always associated with Sunnis. Of course, Crossover was written in 1999, and the world's perceptions have changed. I'll be interested in seeing if that bleeds over into Breakaway, the next book in the series, due in the US April 2007. My only regret is that we're reading Shepherd time lagged, since the books come out in Australia before they do here. I guess they've had a fair bit of that to endure on their end, and Crossover was certainly worth the wait.

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