Orbus is the new book from Neal Asher, one of the most inventive and imaginative authors on the market today, and is the third book in the Spatterjay series (preceded by The Skinner and Voyage of the Sable Keech). I love Neal's work - let me get that out of the way first - and think that the Polity universe of his books is one of the best settings in the sci-fi genre, and with Neal's infinite imagination he's populated it with everything you could possibly think of - and then some. The only question that I had before starting Orbus was how Neal could take the story forward and give us another breathtaking novel. I shouldn't have questioned even that, he has delivered an excellent story, great characters and some very interesting and unique twists and mutations that are a staple of his writings, not to mention that this could very well be his best book to date...
The first thing I noticed when reading Orbus was the writing style. Neal has always been very much an action-centred writer that sometimes gives rough edges to his novels, but Orbus is so well polished and the style so smooth I did a quick double take just to make sure I was reading the right book. I enjoy the way Neal tells a story, but this refinement in his writing has elevated him to the top tiers of science fiction writing today. The most important thing about this growth is that it hasn't negatively affected the way he tells a story at all - all the action, description and weirdness is still as present as ever, but this time everything was even more enjoyable and the words created such a vivid picture in my mind I was constantly putting the book down to just enjoy these huge scenes playing about inside my head. Truly impressive stuff.
As for the story and characters, let me tell you one thing: this is the most fun I've had reading a book for a long time. Orbus, the recovering sadistic Old Captain of the title, is going through mental changes after the conclusion of Voyage of the Sable Keech and while we are with him on the journey we get some interesting and thoughtful looks into his personality. We also have Vrell, the Spatterjay virus mutated Prador, who, with his growing intellect, is capable of increasingly complex things. Seeing his character growth is staggering and the times we follow him are some of the most interesting in the novel. We also have the viewpoint of Golgoloth, a Prador legend that is hiding out in the Graveyard, which is another extremely interesting aspect, as are the times we follow King Oberon himself, ruler of the Prador Third Kingdom. I can't forget to mention Sniper of course, your friendly neighbourhood war drone, who brings both humour and tactics (of the not-so-subtle variety) to the table and is easily the most down-right enjoyable character.
The story is set at a good pace and although there are scene-setting sections, it never feels that anything is put on hold to accommodate these. Even at the start when Orbus first arrives in the Graveyard we have some nice action orientated scenes where we not only get to see an Old Captain in action, but also war drone, a cored and thralled human and a vicious Prador. We also get a good set up from Vrell's point of view while he is taking over the dreadnought he is on which allows us to see his growing capabilities and the workings of his mind to formulate a plan. The narrative doesn't let up for most of the novel and although this could have led to too much of a good thing, it really doesn't.
To be honest I'd be hard pushed to name a character that didn't work or a section of story that was blander than others. Orbus hits every nail on the head, every time. Neal has not only delivered an excellent, enthralling and action-packed story,