23 Years on Fire by Joel Shepherd

23 Years on Fire

A review by Rebecca Muir

ISBN: 9781616148096
Publisher: Pyr (Prometheus Books)
Format: paperback, 433 pages

23 Years on Fire is the fourth book in Joel Shepherd’s Cassandra Kresnov series, although it is the first of the series that I have read. The book continues the story of Cassandra, or Sandy to her friends. Sandy is a combat GI, a fully synthetic human built by the League (a group of planets colonised by humans) as a super soldier. She has defected to the Federation (another group of human worlds) and is now the leader of the SWAT team on Callay, the Federation homeworld. The Federation and the League have lately been at war, but are now under an uneasy truce.

The book opens with Sandy leading an assault on Pyeongwha, a Federation world where technology has caused a terrible social phenomenon. A group mind has developed and mass slaughter of segments of the population is occurring. Sandy and her team secure the planet and stop the slaughter. It is obvious to Sandy that they have done the right thing but as she arrives back home to Callay she is met with opposition.

There are people who don’t like the Federation targeting its own citizens and there are those who still object to the citizenship granted to Sandy and to other GIs who have also claimed asylum. These troubles are soon overshadowed, however, by the arrival of Eduardo, a GI from New Torah. New Torah is a coalition of worlds that is nominally League territory, but which has suffered social and economic collapse. The planets of New Torah are now ruled by the Corporations, the remnants of the companies that operated bases on the generally inhospitable New Torah planets. Inside the Corporation compounds, these companies are all-powerful. Outside the compounds, lawlessness and poverty reign.

Eduardo brings a message and a warning which sets Sandy’s life on a new trajectory. She must uncover the truth of what is occurring on Pantala, a world in New Torah. However, the truth will come at great personal risk and will have huge implications for all GIs.

23 Years on Fire is an engaging read. It is different from most similar books I have read, in that the main character is an android or artificial intelligence. Sandy is a synthetic human – her systems all mimic regular human systems but she is an artificial creation, made by humans for a particular purpose. This brings all kinds issues for Sandy as she attempts to sort out her self-identity. I have read numerous books exploring some of the issues of artificial intelligence but this is the first book I’ve read where those issues become first-person.

Sandy is portrayed as a complex character: kind and thoughtful and yet hard and strong. She struggles with doubts about her humanity and loves to push herself. She finds fulfilment and therefore joy in combat, which she was created for, and yet she wants to be more than a soldier. She is a warm and engaging character. The other main characters are also well written and interesting.

The book is fast paced and exciting. It has political intrigue and lots of action. It obviously picks up existing story threads from the previous books in the series, but there was enough backstory covered that I was able to pick up on what was going on quite easily.

23 Years on Fire covers themes of belonging, identity, trust and betrayal. Sandy has made a life for herself in the Federation but there are still those who say she doesn’t belong. She is also trying to help other GI defectors to find their place in this society that offers them freedom. One of Sandy’s close friends, another GI called Rhian, has found her place of belonging with a husband and step-children to love and raise. Three children that Sandy meets on Pantala have their own sense of belonging, bound up in their close ties as siblings alone in a harsh world.

Sandy struggles with her identity as synthetic and yet human. She has been trying to become more and more human, but at the same time she is discovering her differences to “straights”. Her abilities are also growing, especially her cyber abilities – her control of virtual reality constructs, for example. Sandy must wrestle with who she is and who she wants to be.

Throughout the book, Sandy must work out who she can trust. She must also identify which principles and values are the most important, not to be betrayed at any cost. There are some hard decisions to make, and some hard situations to deal with where Sandy must face betrayal.

I enjoyed reading 23 Years on Fire so much so that I am planning to try and get hold of the first three books in the series. I recommend this book to people who like military scifi, cyberpunk or political thrillers. However, be warned that there is a bit of strong language in some parts and some rather crude talk of sex making it unsuitable for young readers.