Killswitch, Joel Shepherd

Pyr, 2007, 450 pages, C$17.00 tpb, ISBN 978-1-59102-598-6

Killswitch is the third novel in Joel Shepherd’s “Cassandra Kresnov” series, after Crossover and Breakaway. While I read those first two novels with some interest, I could never find enough things to say about them to justify a full-length review. Worse: those two novels seemed both repetitive and strangely fake in their treatment of their heroine’s problems.

Before explaining why Killswitch is a stronger, more noteworthy novel, let’s review the series so far: In a future where humanity has spread to a number of star systems, the major political lines are between the Federation and the League –two generic names that more or less describe how blandly Kresnov’s feels about them. Kresnov may begin the novel looking like an apolitical party-hard code-slinger, but the truth is more complex: she’s a sophisticated combat android trying to forget her past and fit in the relatively well-functioning multicultural society of Callay. Sadly, things don’t end up working like they should, and a kidnapping by covert operatives end up rousing the interest of Callay’s protection forces. Cassandra may just want to live simply, but her new masters won’t let her shirk away from what she’s been trained for, especially when she proves so devastatingly effective at protecting the president from enemy attacks. The matter of her sentience and legal status having been settled over and over again, she eventually (albeit reluctantly) finds a place as part of Callay’s security forces.

The problem of the first two books aren’t obvious from the previous plot summary, but they stem from them: This is a pretty ordinary set of plot points. Beautiful-but-deadly military androids are fast approaching cliché, and the question of whether a well-functioning robot has rights equal to those of a human is the kind of classic SF question that has long worn out its novelty value. Breakaway seemed to rehash the exact same issues as Crossover did while bringing nothing new to them, either in theme or in plot. While Shepherd’s writing is competent and even exciting when tackling action sequences, it’s hardly spectacular otherwise and doesn’t do much to compensate for the novels’ pedestrian plots. To that one must add the often-unbelievable way Shepherd writes about his heroine: somehow, I doubt that hot lusty females spend as much time thinking about how hot and sex-obsessed they are as males seem to think they do. The barely-repressed lust expressed by Kesnov’s best friend Vanessa smacks more of male wish-fulfillment than actual character development.

But things are different with Killswitch. The plot takes another direction as people from Kresnov’s past come back to cause problems. The political issues from the previous novels are further developed, but this time both Kresnov and the readers care a bit more about who’s right or wrong beyond the obvious statement that terrorism is baaad. It helps that the threat to Kresnov’s continued existence is far more ominous –how could it be otherwise with a kill-switch implanted deep in her neural system? Even the characters seem more fleshed-out, with Kresnov’s relationships deepening. The romantic tension with her best friend is finally discussed, and our heroine earns a very satisfying epilogue. The enviable nature of Callay’s well-adjusted multicultural society continues to be a highlight of the series: Shepherd (an Australian, one notes) paints such a compelling portrait of the planet that I’m tempted to emigrate there despite the risks presented by the series’ ever-ongoing carnival of high-speed pursuits, gun-fights and orbital combat.

The obvious caveat is that readers will have to slog through two repetitive, sometimes indifferent novels before getting some return on their investment with Killswitch. I think it’s worth it, but readers with less interest in politics (or with more attuned gender-wonkery detectors) may balk earlier in the series. As the Cassandra Kresnov sequence seems open-ended, I’m more curious than ever to find out what else Shepherd has in store for his protagonist now that he’s dealt with most of the obvious questions.

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