The old city was ruthlessly quarantined when an ancient virus was unleashed, but analyst Crash knows its secrets and walks its haunted streets. When the company dreadnought sends a secret message from the deepspace anomaly known as the Eye, the city is the only place Crash can pick it up. But what could push the Demiurge to call for help?
Steel Frame was an unexpected highlight of my 2019 reading – I billed it as Pacific Rim meets Battlestar Galactica with two broken souls standing together against terror and overwhelming odds. When I first heard author Andrew Skinner was writing a sidequel, I wasn’t sure how it would work – Steel Frame doesn’t immediately feel like a story you can tell both sides of – but I was never going to resist diving back into this apocalyptic space opera.
And oh my, exploring the other side works.
The duology – because sadly it seems there will be no third volume in spite of the rather open ending (I choose kittens and rainbows for everyone) – is set in a future where militarised corporations are the backbone of humanity’s expansion across space, feuding for access to the abandoned technology of long-dead alien civilisations. What they find, they find ways to weaponise – whatever the cost. Thirty years ago, Sigurd Lem unleashed horror on Vija and lost 80,000 people. Now, the old city kills almost everything it touches, its boundaries guarded by watchers who shoot on sight and will never come to rescue those who dare its infected streets.
Crash is an analyst, a highly-rated member of Sigurd Lem’s intelligence division, tasked to recover the knowledge Sigurd Lem burned out of itself to survive the city’s infection. Clever, patient, crafty, she knows things her colleagues would kill to keep contained. She’s only human, but her strange link with her mirror – VALOR – allows her to exceed her boundaries and go further into the dark than the rest; and – thanks to VALOR – she has always survived what she has found there.
VALOR, born of the city, is immune to its infection. It’s like an uninhibited Murderbot who has chosen a human and dedicated itself to preserving their shared consciousness. Once again, Skinner writes an irresistible love story between human and machine, exploring the searing edges of a relationship that blurs the boundaries of self. Alone, they are frighteningly competent. Together, they must navigate a web of untrusting and untrustworthy allies, having introduced themselves as the enemy of their own people from the very start. Crash and VALOR trust nobody but each other – but can they be trusted?
The opening act of Origin Complex is all atmosphere and relationship building as analyst Crash and VALOR scam their way into the city on a self-assigned mission to retrieve a message beamed back from the most dangerous place in the galaxy. Vija is a blasted waste aboveground and a tomb below. The Eye – current location of the dreadnought Demiurge, most powerful ship in Sigurd’s fleet – is in another dimension, accessed via a nightmare flight by the brave and the lucky, or via an ancient comm link on Vija by the few. The very few. Just Crash and VALOR, in fact.
The military grade haunted house setting lets Skinner show just how ruthless Sigurd Lem is, and how special the bond between Crash and VALOR – and how many secrets the pair are keeping from their employer. They may be the only Sigurd operatives who can sidestep the city’s infection. The only two who have turned its siren song into their own private call and response. The only ones who know more than the opening lines of the haunting lyrics sung by its dead tech (and stars above and bones below, the rest is so discomforting). Consequently, when the wrong door is opened near the Eye, only they stand any chance of stuffing the genie it releases back into the bottle.
Come with me
To the bottom of the sea
From the storms of Vija to the ruins of the Eye, Skinner gives us the story behind Steel Frame. Sigurd Lem is as terrifying from the inside as it was as an antagonistic corps, with its inhuman Dark Office calling the shots and its entirely deadly but unnervingly likeable reivers – steady Jacobi, believing in Crash; protective, hungry Moon, careful with her words and dedicated in her affection (yes, there’s room for a frisson of romance in this one) – ready to fire on command.
Crash and VALOR are irresistible, but as they drop deeper into nightmare their Achilles heels are easy to see. Crash has the mad courage of someone whose job is to touch the void, and – like MONARCH, the AI core of the Demiurge – is a moth to a flame, unable to resist a chance to see – touch, even – truths she has spent a lifetime groping in the dark to recover. And VALOR is a machine, however devoted, however powerful – in a universe where any form of contact is a death sentence for everyone. How far will its immunity – and its loyalty – stretch?
Don’t let them touch you
The narrative doesn’t so much unfurl as coalesce, with plot and characters glimpsed through the barely penetrable darkness of the worldbuilding. Crash – true to character – is (at least initially) parsimonious in doling out context; while I could argue that its clever for the reading experience to fly as blind as the characters must through the froth, some readers may find it frustrating. I largely loved the way details and new threats emerged from the gloom, although I’d dearly like to know exactly what went down at Cataract 6.
It helps that I love Skinner’s prose – this may be a chonky book, but it is as immersive as it is compelling. Let’s face it, this is still the apocalyptic adventures of a space archaeologist and her robot mirror, piecing together the shattered clues of an undead civilisation to try and prevent an invasion of maddened machine ghosts. Of course I adored it as it broke my heart (you’ve been warned), not least for the way Skinner captures the irresistible lure of understanding the past – even when its trying to obliterate you.
In my opinion, Origin Complex can be approached as a stand-alone – noting that whichever novel you read first will include spoilers for the other. Those who have read Steel Frame will know what the Demiurge is calling home to report (but can take pleasure in Crash’s journey), while those coming fresh to the universe can unravel its mysteries alongside Crash. If pushed, I’d still suggest reading Steel Frame first as the final act of Origin Complex reintroduces characters from the first book and progresses its ending, but it’s a bit like The Girl With All The Gifts and The Boy On The Bridge – either book can technically be read first (but I’m glad I read The Girl With All The Gifts and Steel Frame first).
Wherever you start, I would urge you to pick one up if you have any love for the horrors found in inscrutable alien ruins, or action-packed narratives that pack an emotional punch. Steel Frame is an undeservedly overlooked debut and Origin Complex is a wonderful second helping that enhances and expands the universe.
I received a free copy from the author. This has not influenced the content of my review, although did mean he had to put up with my reaction tweets.