A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Andrea Cort Novels
by Adam-Troy Castro

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted August 31, 2023
Edits and Addenda on September 22 and November 17

Emissaries from the Dead / The Third Claw of God / War of the Marionettes

Unfortunately, Emissaries from the Dead is out of print, but available for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. It is also in other e-book formats from multiple sources. The only listing at Bookshop is for back-ordered audio CDs, meaning they are likely out of production. The lowest price for a used paperback through an Amazon third-party seller at this time is very high, so if you prefer print I suggest checking eBay or bookfinder.com for a more reasonable price. The ISBN for the mass market paperback is 9780061443725.

Published in paperback in 2008, it won the Philip K. Dick Award in a tie with David Walton's Terminal Mind. It features the second appearance of Andrea Cort. Two novels followed, along with several novellas and shorter stories. Her first appearance came in 2002 in the previously reviewed "Unseen Demons," which is set approximately a year before the novel. They are both contained within a series the author calls the "AIsource Infection Universe," which features other characters besides Andrea Cort. One of the stories in the collection I reviewed last month ("Our Human" in Her Husband's Hands) was about one of them.

The paperback's cover image shows Andrea Cort clinging to a precarious perch, looking down on dragons flying through heavy clouds. She is not on a planet. She is inside the largest space habitat she has ever seen, known as One One One, which had been built by the AIsource, and the dragons are just one of their creations. There are also the Brachiators, ape-like creatures that inhabit the heavy vines of the Uppergrowth. The Brachiators are very slow moving creatures, so much so that Cort quickly dismisses any of them as the perpetrator of either of the murders she is there to investigate. She keeps getting contradictory information as to who requested her as the investigator. If it was Ambassador Gibb why does he keep denying it, and the same for his assistant, Lastogne? The latter is a cypher, since she can find no information on him in any database she searches, and she has a very high security clearance. Her superior can't help her either, saying his superiors have told him to forget about it.

The prologue is written in third-person; the rest of the novel is narrated by Cort in first-person. The prologue calls her the Monster, which is something Andrea echoes herself from time to time. When she interviews someone she is sure is guilty, as she did in the previous novella, she calls them the other monster in the room. Andrea Cort is as much a mystery as anything she investigates, continually confronted by people who know her history, or at least part of the story. They think she is a monster too, and she does and says nothing to dissuade them of that notion. And no matter what other crime she is investigating, she continues to piece together clues that would implicate the AIsource as the reason behind her own crime. When she wants her questioning to be secret she uses a tech device called a hiss screen, which creates a sound-deadening bubble around her. She used that when talking to Emil Sandburg at the end of the novella. At that time she told him of her suspicion of unseen demons who were manipulating humans, and perhaps other species too, something she had never told anyone else. When she has an audience with the AIsource on One One One, it tells her they will help her figure out her unseen demons, clearly indicating they are everywhere, even inside her hiss screen.

Another indication I try to remain spoiler free on books is I had assumed the AIsource had been a human technology that developed sentience. No, it is much older than that, something that had existed in the galaxy long before man left Earth, perhaps even before man evolved into homo sapiens. It may be derived from some other species' creation, but vastly evolved beyond that, and probably a combination of many different such creations merged together as they enountered each other across the galaxy. As weird and dangerous as that sounds, even more so when it tells Andrea they want her to help with one of their own investigations. I won't reveal the details of her murder investigation, nor her conclusions, but they are strange and confusing due to the situation the human scientists have to deal with inside One One One. I also won't reveal the meaning of the title, except to say it concerns the Brachiators' concepts of the world they live in. There is perhaps another mystery at the end, maybe a third murder, or just a disappearance, she can't be sure, and it is something we might not find out about later. The AIsource is satisfied enough, as are Cort's superiors, since she is getting a larger ship for her future work, and allowance to recruit assistants. The first of those is Oscin (pronounced Ocean) and Skye Porrinyard, who is actually a single, cylinked person, a combination of two previous individuals into one personality. Very interesting concept, and I'm looking forward to how Castro develops that character, and how they (or whatever pronoun is appropriate) help Cort come out of her shell. Hopefully she also gets closer to the truth she seeks, but until then, Andrea Cort is the biggest mystery Andrea Cort will ever face.


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As with the first novel in this series, The Third Claw of God is out of print, but available for Kindle from Amazon. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission. No listing in any format at Bookshop. If you want to search for a used copy of the paperback, its ISBN is 9780061443732.

Posted September 22, 2023
The second Andrea Cort novel takes place as much as a year after the first. It is possible I missed some information in the earlier book, and while I know Andrea formed an alliance with the
AIsource, I don't recall them implanting a neural link in her. That was done so they could communicate without anyone else being aware of it, Andrea "speaking" to them sub-vocally. The procedure may have been done in the interim between the books. She had originally thought the AIsource was responsible for what happened to her on Bocai when she was eight years old, but she learned there was a rogue faction of AIs that were at fault. That is, if she can trust the AIsource, but I'm still skeptical of that, and she probably is too. One thing hard to believe is that the main AIsource wants to die, and they want to take the rogue faction with them. A being or beings that can and have done practically anything they wanted, now wants to give it up? If they have a suicide complex, why would Andrea trust them? She is perfectly willing to help them accomplish their death since they continually frustrate her with clues pertaining to her cases, but also say they can't reveal too much, it is against their Rules of Engagement.

The Third Claw of God is a science-fictional premise within the "locked room mystery" genre. In this case it is a locked space elevator carriage, which undergoes an emergency stop high above the planet Xana, which is the home of the Bettelhine family and their corporate headquarters. Their business is weapons manufacture, something that makes them hated and feared throughout known space, and by Andrea herself. Shortly after she and her companion, the cylinked Porrinyards, arrived at the orbital facility Layabout, she was attacked by two Bocaian assassins, one of them wielding an ancient weapon known as a Claw of God. That was not from Bocai but another system entirely, and even though Andrea knew of it, she didn't think they still existed. She also wasn't sure she was the original intended target, since no one should have been aware she was traveling to Xana, and even if they did it would have been next to impossible to arrive before her.

When consulting with Layabout's security chief, Andrea proposes the possibility of there being at least two more Claws of God ready to be used. One more is used either during the blackout after the emergency stop, or shortly thereafter. She had been invited to Xana directly by Hans Bettelhine, the head of the family and corporation, but she couldn't figure out why, only that she would be well compensated for the trip. Hans is not there to greet her, instead it is two of his children, Jason and Jelaine, and unexpectedly, their brother Philip, who is also out of the loop concerning Andrea's visit. Neither Jason or Jelaine will answer her questions, only saying she has to wait to hear it from Hans directly. I won't go into other crimes and incidents, just say they are intriguing and puzzling. After the emergency stop, all communication with Layabout and Xana is cut off, and so is Andrea's connection to the AIsource, or so she thinks. They won't answer when she calls for their help.

Speaking of locked room mysteries, I haven't read many, only a couple by Agatha Christie, one by Dorothy Sayers, none by Louise Penny, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh, or others. Thus I don't know how much dialog they usually have versus how much exposition. Third Claw goes against the maxim of "show, don't tell." It is mostly dialog, and a lot of it by Andrea as she discusses the various possibilities with the people she interrogates. Once again, this book is written in first-person with Andrea the narrator. She hints that she has figured a few things out, but it is a long time until the reveal, and that is the case with several things the Porinnyards say and do too. Even the AIsource said they were leaving it up to Andrea to figure things out on her own. They could have told her quite a bit if they had wanted to since their connection had not been severed. The proposition from the Bettelhines is tempting, and Andrea almost falls for it, having warmed up to Jason and Jelaine, feeling both sympathy and admiration for what they said they wanted to accomplish. But if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. At the end, Andrea is back on board her personal transport, and back in the good graces of the Porrinyards, whom she feared had abandoned her.

Along with the novel, the Kindle file also includes a previously unpublished story (in the US at least), which was a continuation of two early ones that had appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, one in 1997, the other 2003, and all three share a word in the title with the third novel; Marionettes. The intro to the story says it was written before Third Claw, and that some of the elements were incorporated into the backstory of two characters in the book. Since I haven't read it yet I'm not sure which two characters, but I have a guess. I may read it before the next novel, or maybe wait until I can track down the other two "Marionette" stories, but they have only been in F&SF or in a collection, all of which may be hard to find, and perhaps at too high a price for me. We shall see. One way or the other, I will read War of the Marionettes sometime next month. [CORRECTION: War of the Marionettes will be in November, but I did track down the Marionettes stories. See link below.


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War of the Marionettes has a weird publishing history. Its first print edition, released in October 2010, was in Germany, under the title Sturz der Marionetten. Another in French I believe, but for more than ten years it was only available in English as an Audible title. Its arrival on Kindle didn't come until February of this year, which is how I read it. A purchase through that link may earn us a commission. No listing for any format at Bookshop.

Posted November 17, 2023
This is as much a sequel to the three Marionettes novellas I reviewed last month as it is to the previous novels. The first of those stories was the first set in the
AIsource milieu. In that review I wondered how much of the concept Castro had mapped out ahead of time, and now I think it is possible he knew the endpoint of events on Vlhan, but it took him several years to develop the characters and other situations which would lead up to it. Something the AIsource told Andrea when she was still on Xana gave her the idea to go to Vlhan, and her arrival happened to coincide with the upcoming Vlhani Dance of Death. Thousands of other humans had been modified and enhanced to allow them to participate in that dance, but this year was a bit different. Any that did dance, Vlhani, human, or otherwise, knew they would die by the end of the ceremonies, but this time they were not allowed to complete it. A group of other Vlhani began killing them ahead of time, even before some had entered the amphitheater, and that death and destruction spilled over to the humans and other species there to watch and record the dance. Andrea had her own agenda, mainly figuring out why the clues led her to Vlhan, but she is also sidetracked by ambassadors of different species, and a human man and his associate there to find his daughter, whom he is sure is among the dance pilgrims.

This is a well-written story, full of vivid action sequences, as well as intriguing character drama, not the least of which are the internal struggles that face Andrea. However, it is not an easy read. There were multiple foreboding moments, with many times I feared for the life of a favorite character, even though I was aware Andrea would survive. She is the one telling the story after all, even the scenes where one of her associates is separated from her, the exposition being written after the fact. I don't want to say much more than that. Andrea survives, but her relationship with the Porrinyards is strained, possibly broken beyond repair, but I won't know that until I read the next story in the sequence, which will come sometime next month. Castro has said it is as far into Andrea's life as he has written so far, and he is not sure if he will ever be able to go beyond that, but I have to assume he has thought about it. The crux of the situation is that for most of her life, Andrea has hated the AIsource, even while partnering with them to help them toward the doom they say they want. She also hates the rogue intelligences, her unseen demons, who seem hell-bent on making sure they are not eliminated even if the rest of the AIsource dies. She has had to make many terrible decisions along the way, some she may regret forever, even while telling herself she had no other option. Both the AIsource and the unseen demons assure her that she has always had free will to make her own decisions, all the while manipulating her to the point those decisions were the only possible ones she could have made.

The second to last chapter is titled "Armageddon," except the battle is not taking place on the plains of Megiddo, but the desert of Vlhan instead. It may or may not turn out to be the final battle in this story sequence, although another, or many others, might lay ahead as all the other species come after the Hom.Sap Confederacy, due to many illegal things their ambassador to Vlhan did, which had been known and sanctioned by his superiors. The next story I will read is titled "Hiding Place," and while I don't know anything about it, I have to guess it is Andrea hiding from any vengeance that might be directed her way. I also assume the reason Castro has not gone beyond that point yet is Andrea's future, however long she may have, will be even bleaker than everything that has come before. There are two others stories I will read after that, both being set earlier in her life, so perhaps they won't be as traumatic. If and when he writes another Andrea Cort story, I will read it.

BTW, the image I used on the main page is from the Kindle title, the one on this page from a different source. I originally tried to use the German cover, but the background proved too complicated to eliminate the German title and replace it with English. The one I chose is from the French audio book, which I was able to crop and add author and title without having to eliminate other text. Besides, after reading the book I realized the character on the German cover was not Andrea. The image of Andrea being held by one of the Vlhani is from early in the book, or I think it is, the alien just wanting to get a better look at her, and attempt communication, not harm her. That would come later.


Related links:
Adam-Troy Castro's own Andrea Cort/
AIsource Chronology, updated whenever a new story is published.
My reviews of the Andrea Cort Novellas and Shorter Stories.
The Marionettes Novellas.


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Adam-Troy Castro

Third Claw-2009

Emissaries tied for Philip K. Dick Award

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