Crystal Venom is the second book in Steve Wheeler’s A Fury of Aces series. It picks up the story of Marko and his friends as their adventures continue across the galaxy.
The Games Board fund, market and regulate conflicts for the entertainment of the masses; they’ve made a lot of money from the adventures of Marko and the rest of the crew of the Basalt. However, the lengths they seem willing to go to in order to keep on bringing the money in is annoying Basalt’s crew, and starting to worry them. In addition, the Administration, who employ them, seem to have an agenda of their own, which does not necessarily line up with their best interests.
This series is set in a distant future where humanity has spread out across the galaxy. Technology has increased dramatically and become interwoven with life itself. Human bodies can be augmented and changed, even to the level of not really being human any more.
Artificial intelligences can be created and given a body built with artificially created DNA so the line between life and technology has become blurred until non-existent. There are some interesting ideas about what life actually is and how humanity should be defined. At what point would an augmented human cease being human? What about a biological avatar for an AI? If it is an artificial mind in an artificial but genetically human body, is it human? These ideas are presented but not really explored in this book.
Those of you who read my review of the first book, Burnt Ice, will know that I thought it had a few flaws which let it down. One of these was the deliberate vagueness and intrigue surrounding the true nature or identity of most of the Basalt’s crew. This book does reveal a lot more about some of the characters, Veg and Stephine in particular. However, there are more secrets added in as well.
Everyone seems to think Marko is really special but there is not really any explanation given as to why. Granted, he seems like a nice enough man but he did not come across to me as being extraordinary enough to warrant the special treatment he is given. I also found it a bit frustrating that the way most of the female characters respond to this apparent specialness is to want to jump into bed with him – even if it means all doing it together. A very male perspective on how a woman might respond!
The first half of the book continued in a similar vein to Burnt Ice, where Steve Wheeler seemed intent on showering the Basalt’s crew with goodies. However, in the second half, he seems to be seeing how many of their resources he can wipe out. The feel of the book definitely changes halfway through. Crystal Venom is written in a very episodic way and the transitions feel a bit jumpy. The pace keeps changing, too. The book slows down and gives lots of detail about a particular scene and how Marko feels about it. Then it suddenly speeds up and glosses over the details as though Steve Wheeler got sick of that bit and wanted to move onto something new.
There are some interesting ideas in Crystal Venom and some of the framework Steve Wheeler has come up with for his imagined universe has a lot of potential. However, it just doesn’t fulfil that potential – at least not in this book. Some elements of the story are not handled very elegantly – like the unexplained favour surrounding Marko or the way sex is so gratuitously portrayed (particularly Marko’s attitude – his casualness towards it just didn’t gel with the rest of his character for me) or the way transitions in the plot are handled.
Crystal Venom filled out some of the gaps from the previous book but I still found it a bit confusing. It has some merits but missed the mark for me.