It is the 25th century and the Consortium spreads out over an area of space in the orion arm. Although humanity do not have the capability to use ftl travel, a species called the Shoal do, and are the only species in the galaxy with that know-how. They happily transport humans within the area they have been designated, but they also put strict limits within the agreement they have with humans, one among many being the prohibition of research into ftl travel.
Dakota Merrick is a machine head, a human with implants that were made illegal after a terrible attack that killed many innocent humans. She now does whatever work she can get using her ship, Piri Reis, although sometimes taking dangerous cargo to keep the money coming in. It is during a job like this that things go wrong and she must get out of the Sol system quickly and keep her head down. She gets work on board the Hyperion, working for the Freehold in what she is told is a scout mission searching for a new planet for them.
Lucas Corso is blackmailed into working for the Freehold, his specialist skills in Shoal computer language desperately desired. The Freehold have discovered a derelict ship, one with ftl capabilities, but not of Shoal origin. They hope to retrieve this ship and use it for what they hope will be a glorious victory over their enemies and the start of independent human expansion throughout the galaxy, all under their watchful eye. However, the Shoal have kept a secret for thousands of years and are prepared to protect it at all costs. Now that this derelict is discovered, that secret is at risk of being revealed.
The derelict found by the Freehold is the main focus of this novel and brings together all characters we meet. This means that the story is very well defined and doesn't wander needlessly, something that makes it so much more enjoyable. Don't get me wrong, there are some things bought up that I would like to know more about, but the story would suffer if they were included, mainly because they are more general aspects of the history and events rather than anything directly involved in the novel.
The characters are also well developed, with sections going back to the earlier life of Dakota explaining in more detail about the situation around Machine Heads. As we're constantly aware of how her type is viewed by the Freehold (and Consortium as a whole) there is always that question in the back of your mind of why she is treated like that. When the thread does conclude, we're fully aware of how the revelations will impact the story, perhaps a little obviously. However, the full revelation happens late enough in the story for it not to matter too much and most will probably figure it out before this anyway.
The other characters are mainly supporting ones, with the main focus being on Dakota. This actually helps the story move along at a steady pace as we're not getting too many viewpoints to the events. Although the stuff I read usually has multiple plot threads and character viewpoints, this was a refreshing change. A story that has such huge ideas and conveys them in a cast relatively small is a nice change, but this also shows great promise for the future novels following on from these events.
At the end of the day, I was mightily impressed with what Gary has done here. The change in his style and ability from Angel Stations is noticeable and very promising. This is a very enjoyable read and at times it was a real page turner. Perhaps a downside is the fact that the novel plays out pretty much as expected with no real surprises, just revelations that add to the experience and general feeling of the novel. I'll be adding Gary to my buy on publication list now and eagerley look forward to the continuation of this story.