Ian Cormac is an Earth Central Security agent undercover with a resistance faction led by Arian Pelter with the help of freelance mercenary John Stanton. All is going well, but they discover his true identity and he kills Arian's sister and injures both Stanton and Pelter as he makes his escape. After being gridlinked for 30 years, ten above recommended maximum, Cormac has started to lose his humanity. It is this that caused the operation to be discovered by the resistance and the reason why he must stop grindlinking, the only way to get his humanity back.
The runcible on Samarkand has been destroyed purposely, with it destroying the current terraforming operation and killing all humans. The evidence points to a creature known as Dragon, an alien consisting of four 1-kilometer wide spheres of flesh. Cormac has met with Dragon many years ago, and although everyone thought he had been destroyed, it is not the case. After arriving at Samarkand a discovery is made, two beings created by Dragon, Dracomen, are found. Along with this there is an unknown object discovered by the scanners buried underground. This object turns out to be an adamantium egg, a prison which held Maker, apparently one of the race that created Dragon. Dragon knew of Maker's escape and tried to destroy it by using the runcible as a devastating bomb.
Cormac must now get to the bottom of Dragon's reappearance, finding out what Maker is and if Dragon can be trusted. Along the way he is pursued by Pelter and Stanton, along with Pelter's psychopathic Golem, Mr Crane.
I found this book to be highly enjoyable, one of the better novels I've read in quite a while. I'm no stranger to Neal's work, having already read The Skinner, Voyage of the Sable Keech and Hilldiggers, all of which are set in the same brilliant universe. As this is Neal's first major novel some of the writing does give away this fact, although it never feels clunky and does flow smoothly enough to enjoy.
The characters are well developed and each have their own feel, especially Pelter and his deranged android, Mr Crane. The character of Mr Crane is an unusual one, an android that is controlled by Pelter but has an underlying personality that is hinted at strongly, but never quite explored enough. Cormac is a typical agent, and after the gridlinking is removed you can almost feel a sympathy with him, not quite knowing what to say or how to behave in some situations. His growth in this story is quite substantial and the character we find at the end of the book is one I look forward to reading more about.
One of Neal's strongest points as a writer is just how well he develops this universe and all its inhabitants, from modified humans to Golem super-androids and then to the AI's that are the obvious ruling power in the human Polity, everything just fits nicely into place as if years were spent inventing and refining this future. I've loved the richness of Spatterjay when I read The Skinner and Voyage of the Sable Keech, and Hilldiggers showed a different side of the coin with political storylines dominating the novel, but now that I've started Neals major piece of work, the Cormac series, I can truly see how talented an author he is and just how widely his imagination reaches. I can only hope that I enjoy the following four Cormac novels as much as this, because action sf on a huge canvas doesn't get much better.