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Ash Ock by Christopher HinzThree and a half stars
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Like so many middle novels of trilogies — especially in cases where the first novel was brilliant — Ash Ock does not manage to create quite the same level of freshness and urgency as its predecessor, Liege-Killer. Likewise, rather than standing alone, Ash Ock mainly seeks to set readers up for the final novel and the ultimate confrontation we are waiting for.

But this book is not at all a case of the old "sophomore slump" either, offering up some nifty surprises and unexpected treats all its own. Set 56 years later, Hinz's second Paratwa opus shows the orbital colonies gearing up for the return of the interstellar starships, now known to be populated with the marauding Paratwa assassins and their Ash Ock rulers who seek to enslave all of humanity. 68-year-old Jerem Marth, the reckless young boy from Liege-Killer, now rules the Costeau pirate clan as Lion of Alexander. As a new outbreak of mass murder starts up on the colonies, this time by a pair of maniacs whom most people believe to be merely imitating Paratwa, the Lion once again brings Nick and Gillian, the Paratwa hunters from before the apocalypse of 2099, out of stasis to help with the growing crisis.

As mentioned, most colonials believe the murderers to be Paratwa imitators. (During their massacres, they claim to be acting on behalf of a leading anti-Paratwa political faction, and so the idea is that these killings are designed to discredit this faction.) But it comes as no surprise — as Nick and Gillian begin their investigation — that the killers really are Paratwa, though possibly a type never encountered before. Amidst the growing crisis, not the least worrisome aspect of which is the threat of the returning starships, there is also the concern that ancient computer files containing important data from before the apocalypse are being wiped by miscreants unknown. And of course, there is Gillian's mental condition (which I won't elaborate upon in the interest of not giving those who still haven't read the first novel an unwelcome spoiler).

Hinz is basically covering overly familiar plot territory in Ash Ock, robbing the sequel of some ingenuity. The richness of colonial society, the intricacy of Liege-Killer's always surprising plot, the excellence of characterization — none of these things exhibits quite the panache it had the first time. But, that said, it's still an absorbing, entertaining novel that offers up some interesting surprises of its own to keep its hooks into you, and in its final hundred pages kicks into high gear in a way that almost equals Liege-Killer's best moments. A puzzling incongruity in the new Paratwa's attack pattern (the tways inexplicably leave a wide open blind spot, making them vulnerable) leads Gillian to a shocking conclusion about the nature of these assassins. Also, a young woman who witnessed one of the Paratwa massacres feels she somehow knows one of the assassins, and when she finds herself hunted by them, she learns a heretofore unknown startling truth about her own nature.

In all, Ash Ock leaves you at the end wanting to dive straight into the final novel, The Paratwa, without delay. (I sure didn't delay.) And it does manage to cement the reputation of this trilogy as one of the most entertaining the genre had to offer in the 80's.