Australian author Joel Shepherd came to my attention via his excellent current fantasy series, A TRIAL OF BLOOD AND STEEL, which I was so impressed by that I decided to check out his earlier novels. Crossover is the first novel in his CASSANDRA KRESNOV trilogy, and was also his first published book, back in 2001 in Australia. The series is now also in print in the US thanks to Pyr, with lovely and evocative cover illustrations by Stephen Martiniere.
The story revolves around Cassandra (Sandy) Kresnov, a synthetic person: to the naked eye she looks like a normal person, but she’s been artificially created by the League to fight in their war against the Federation. She’s also the most advanced type of her kind: not only considerably stronger and more intelligent than a normal person, but also gifted with the ability to think laterally, which has given her a more human-like psyche — a conscience, if you will. After deserting the League, Sandy is trying to settle down in the Federation, but she soon discovers that it’s just as impossible to abandon her prior life as it is to ignore who — and what — she is.
Crossover is a great example of intelligent, well-written science fiction. Joel Shepherd has created a fascinating multi-dimensional heroine in Cassandra. While many people don’t accept her for what she is, whether because of her League origins or because of the simple fact that she’s different, her advanced intelligence gives her many of the same traits and drives that regular humans have. At the same time, she is so much more advanced than most other synthetics that she’s never fully connected with them either, and despite forming strong emotional and physical bonds with them, they regard her more with worship than love.
Crossover is set entirely in Tanusha, the capital city of Callay, in the Federation. Joel Shepherd does an excellent job describing this fascinating metropolis, and sets some truly riveting action scenes in it — a few rank with the best work of action experts like Peter F. Hamilton. The story is set entirely in the Federation and we get a solid idea of the differences between Federation and League because, just like in his fantasy series, the author doesn’t shy away from focusing in considerable depth on the political structures and values of his fictional societies. Some readers may not be as enthused with this level of detail: it noticably slows the story down a few times and also sneaks into some of the dialogue, with the occasional instance of two characters delivering paragraph-length lectures to each other. However, providing this level of detail serves the dual purpose of making the fictional world more “real” and lending considerable depth to the differences between the two opposing sides.
Cassandra is joined by a fairly large cast of side-characters, some of whom are better realized (e.g., Vanessa Rice, the executive-turned-SWAT-agent) than others. Especially some of the government officials started to blend together a bit for me, and some minor characters were introduced so briefly and had such similar names than I found it hard to keep track of them. Still, the plot moves along at such a fast pace that it’s not a huge problem if you’re not entirely sure which SWAT agent made which joke before, and the main characters are always clearly defined.
All in all, Crossover is an intelligent page-turner with a fascinating protagonist, a well-realized world and some of the most exciting action scenes I’ve read in years. While the concept of an artificial person with more human emotions and intelligence is nothing new, Joel Shepherd has given it a memorable new face with Cassandra Kresnov. I genuinely look forward to finding out how her story continues in Breakaway, the second novel in the series.