Burnt Ice is the first book in Steve Wheeler’s A Fury of Aces series. It follows the adventures of Marko Spitz, a sergeant in the Administration’s military in the distant future of humanity. Marko and his team of military engineers are a special group used by the Administration (who rule the Sphere of Humanity) when there are problems with technology to be solved and cleaned up quietly. They are a team of elites, all with special skills.
As Burnt Ice opens, the team is being dropped onto the planet Cygnus 5, supposedly for some rest and relaxation. However, things change when a previously undiscovered race of sentient squid attack the base. This propels Marko and the team into a series of adventures which will take them outside the Sphere of Humanity and pit them against unknown enemies.
I’m not quite sure whether to give Burnt Ice a good review or not. Steve Wheeler has given his imagination free rein, and come up with a big picture of the future of humanity – one in which humans travel among the stars, can manipulate their own genetics to augment themselves and have discovered a technological method of immortality. It is a future in which the line between natural life and artificial life has been well and truly blurred. I’ve always enjoyed this particular subset of science fiction – the interstellar, technologically advanced humanity subset.
However, Burnt Ice had some flaws as well. For one thing, the true nature of most of the characters remains hidden – they are almost uniformly portrayed as having some kind of secret or another in their past or in their very existence. Steve Wheeler goes a bit over the top in creating shadows around his characters, none of which are really cleared away. I suppose he is setting up the next few books but it makes this one a bit frustrating – it is hard to get a handle on who some of the characters really are.
Another thing which I felt let the book down is the way Steve Wheeler is almost a bit greedy for Marko and the team in terms of technology. They fly a new ship with some whiz bang features and suddenly it is gifted to them. They develop a new technology, and suddenly they are wealthy from the profits. Their ship ends up with all sorts of convenient modifications that no one else in the universe seems to have been able to do. It is almost like watching a kid in a lolly shop.
The other main flaw I felt the book had was in the use of technology – there are some problems which the crew face for which they quickly come up with a solution but it almost seems too easy. I felt like Burnt Ice was heading towards inconsistency – there are other problems, which for the sake of the plot had to be a bit more difficult, but if problems A and B were so easy for these engineering geniuses to solve, why is problem C so hard?
Having been so negative, I did mostly enjoy reading the book. There is a fair bit of action (even though some of it seems random and unconnected – again, some things are left deliberately vague) and some interesting ideas. However, Burnt Ice misses its potential. There could have been so much more character exploration instead of innuendo and intrigue. There are issues that could have been explored so much more – issues about what humanity actually is, and what life actually is, issues about what ends justify what means and issues about loyalty and trust. However, the book only skims across the surface of these. Burnt Ice is a book I enjoyed reading but not one which I expect to keep on coming back to, to read or to ponder.