To date, 2008’s The Shadow of the Scorpion is Neal Asher’s fifth Agent Cormac novel, but first in terms of internal chronology. Describing events of Cormac’s youth, as well as his first years training as a soldier, it reveals how he came to be in Sparkind and involved in so much graphic, rip-roaring action across the Prador infested galaxy.
Split into two storylines, one half of The Shadow of the Scorpion describes Cormac’s childhood with his mother, brother, and father at the forefront of the war with the Prador. The brother a doctor, Cormac learns second-hand the horrors of war. It isn’t until becoming a man he learns just how much more horrorific war is first-hand. The second half of the novel is classic soldier-in-training material that develops into all-out special agent action as a splinter group of humans complicate the war with the Pradors by attempting a separatist revolution.
Despite being a prequel, I would not recommend starting with The Shadow of the Scorpion if looking to read Asher for the first time or jump into the Agent Cormac series. While the novel stands on its own and the reader has the important details filled in, the man’s youth takes on more meaning (if such a thing can occur in mainstream science fiction) in the context of having a couple of the other novels under your belt. Thus, for those who have read other Cormac novels, the novel may offer an extra degree of appreciation.
In the end, I’m not sure if I were Paul Di Filippo or Damien Broderick that The Shadow of the Scorpion is the Neal Asher novel I would have chosen for the The 101 Best Novels: 1985-2010. An average novel, it has weaknesses in comparison to other, more coherent, above average works in Asher’s oeuvre. The Skinner, Cowl, and Gridlinked, for example, show tighter focus and more attention to ‘organic plotting’—as much as the term applies in futuristic action-dramas. (I’m guessing the Scorpion pick is more representative to the list than particular to the novel.) That being said, fans of Asher’s work will probably still enjoy the novel, as well as fans of grimdark space opera in general. Possessing a dash of sex and a lot of military violence, it’s a mainstream effort that will please if expectations are not taken beyond.