Now in charge of an cargo spaceship, the Old Captain Orbus, flees a violent and sadistic past, but he doesn’t know that the lethal war drone, Sniper, is a stowaway, and that past is rapidly catching up with him. His old enemy, the Prador Vrell, mutated by the Spatterjay virus into something powerful and dangerous, has seized control of a Prador dreadnought, slaughtering its entire crew, and now seeks to exact vengeance on those who tried to have him killed.
Their courses inexorably converge in the Graveyard, the border realm lying between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom, a place filled with the ruins left by past genocides and interplanetary war. Secure in that same place the Golgoloth, a monster to a race of monsters, is recruited by the terrifying King of the Prador into the long cold war between his kind and the humans. It is imperative that Vrell be hunted down and killed, for what he knows and what he might become.
Meanwhile, something that has annihilated civilizations is stirring from a slumber of five million years, and the cold war is heating up, fast.
This was a novel I was keenly awaiting - and not without trepidation. Could the third in Neal Ashers Spatterjay series deliver the same raw punch and imagination of The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech?
I shouldn't have worried. Orbus is a real page turner and fantastic development of the series - and indeed the Polity universe as a whole.
For a start we have the war-drone Sniper stowed away with his companion,Thirteen - a relatively small, ex-planetary submind drone in the shape of "iron seahorse with topaz eyes". Sniper (a heavily armoured, be-tentacled nautiloid) has to be the cheekiest and most irreverent artificial lifeform in science fiction - certainly that I know of. Not to mention the most well armed and least likely to suggest we all just calm down a minute and talk through our issues. So from Sniper's appearance on page one you know some serious action is just round the corner.
Orbus himself is a Spatterjay 'Old Captain' - that is to say centuries old and with a body bolstered by the Spatterjay virus itself. While this makes him phenomenally physically strong and resilient, mentally its another matter. After spending a long while as a sadistic captain to a masochistic crew he wants now to put his aberrant past behind him. But old habits die hard and a former crew mate - Iannus Drooble - continues with him. Its sometimes difficult to say which of the two would most like to fall into their old way of life.
The relationship between Orbus and Drooble is a fascinating thread running through the book. The characters are complex and tortured, and this is all well realized by Asher.
Finally the Prador, Vrell. He too is virally infected and making his own voyage of discovery - about himself certainly but also the terrifying Prador King, Oberon and not forgetting the Golgoloth, a creature that turns out to be more than just a racial memory. And when you realize the Jain are once again rearing their deadly eye from the past...well, fresh underwear please.
The plot draws together and explores these elements in a marvelous fashion where the pages just seem to turn themselves. The writing style is smooth and inviting while the plot has teeth that grab you repeatedly. What more could you want from what seems to me to be the very best science fiction available.
So if you're thinking of reading Orbus, I recommend starting from the series beginning, as both The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech are similar thumping good reads and set the stage for this volume.
Hold on tight though, its going to be one hell of a wild ride.