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The Machine Awakes
by Adam Christopher
Tor, $25.99, 416pp
Published: April 2015

In the future, mankind expands across the galaxy until it runs into the Spiders, a race of giant world-devastating machines who share a hive mind that houses a powerful artificial intelligence. The ensuing war leads to the loss of the Moon and much of the Earth's southern hemisphere, but has, at the very least, been successfully driven out of the solar system. The Fleet leads the fight against the Spiders with psi-marines who can team together to destroy each enemy by psychically overwhelming its connections to its peers and leaving it wide open to conventional attack.

However, humanity still faces an uphill struggle, especially when the man in charge, the Fleet Admiral, is assassinated. What really throws things for a loop is when his replacement is also assassinated, almost immediately after ascending into the job. The Fleet pulls all resources back to base to return stability at a notable time of crisis and reaches out to its Bureau of Investigation to figure out what's going on.

It falls to Von Kodiak, a clever agent pulled back from an assignment deep undercover (he's officially both dead and a traitor to the Fleet), to head up this investigation and unravel the various mysteries that it highlights. How was a dead psi-Marine, Tyler Smith, apparently at the scene of both assassinations? How does his twin sister, Caitlin, who vanished under odd circumstances from the Marine Academy before graduating, factor into these proceedings? What are the mysterious coordinates that keep cropping up in odd places? What's going on inside the storms of Jupiter except the mining of precious gases through advanced technology? Inquiring minds want to know.

I found Adam Christopher's sixth novel for Tor an inconsistent experience, sometimes engrossing and sometimes frustrating, perhaps because it really isn't sure what it wants to be.

I believe it works best as a futuristic mystery, because Von Kodiak's imagination and ingenuity are fascinating assets that the author puts to good use. He's introduced before the assassinations so we get to see how he works when on solo assignment but, sadly, the Stainless Steel Rat-esque exploits that he's unable to finish on account of system-wide chaos, do promise to be more interesting than what the novel eventually turns into. Called back mid-mission, he's given a real challenge, an unenviable task that is appropriately described as attempting to track down a needle in a haystack of needles, and he's the sort of lead who we would happily follow down a few rabbit holes to get to whodunit.

Sadly, the focus gradually shifts away from him and his more conventional superiors to the two psi-Marines who become the heart of his investigation, especially Caitlin Smith, who finds herself caught up in the intrigue of a technological thriller. She's an interesting lead too, because she's a strong woman and a powerful warrior in an untenable situation, fighting not only for her own life but for that of her brother, whom she firmly believes is still alive somewhere because he's talking to her telepathically. What's more, we're interested not only in her, her brother and the relationship between them, but also in who is employing her, what their real intentions are and why they're doing what they're doing.

So it's a futuristic mystery and a technological thriller, both aspects of which are strong for the first half of the book. However, what it seems to want to be most is a space opera, something so unimaginatively vast in scale that it affects all of humanity across multiple star systems, that pits our heroes against a race of world-eating monsters and a mysterious mastermind with outrageously huge plans to save the human species.

Unfortunately, while it wants to be big, it's best at being small. What I enjoyed most here was consistently found in the little details and when things got too big for them to matter, I lost a great deal of interest. An engaging setup became obvious cliche with no surprises except a couple of annoyingly cheap twists. Both interesting leads descended into being just characters running down corridors like an old 'Doctor Who' story back when the BBC had no budget. The fascinating aliens humanity is fighting turn out to be more like big bug-eyed monsters from fifties sci-fi, all bark but no bite. The wild possibilities all collapse in on themselves in a poor effort to wrap everything up neatly that ends up astoundingly underwhelming.

And so, for a book that I found engaging for half its length, I think back only with frustration at what it became during the other half. Of all the many directions Adam Christopher could have taken his story, the one he actually took feels like the weakest. Now, I should add that this is a problem with his plotting rather than his writing, something that should have been addressed during editing. I enjoyed the man's prose and would be interested in picking up another of his books, but I hope that whichever one I find has a much better sense of identity.

Let's see that futuristic mystery. Let's see that technological thriller. Let's even see that space opera, with galaxy-spanning action as two utterly different races clash, leaving the wreckage of planets in their wake. Let's just read them one at a time instead of shoehorning them all together into some unholy amalgam that eventually fails at being anything. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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