Shatterhand is a system so undefeatable that it has the whole world in its grip. Mr. Bailey’s two-part speculative technothriller epic is a dystopian Orwellian tale for the contemporary digital world. The advances in technology, media manipulations, deep-fakes, false news, and political divisiveness take a grim turn here when the villain is no human, but an Artificial Supreme Intelligence that’s a believable but an equally horrific version of Lovecraftian cosmic horror entities.
This cautionary tale of cyber-intelligence systems and subtle social critique is in the form of a duology beginning in Threat Intelligence and culminating in Strike Matrix. It has the feel of an international version of Person Of Interest with the contemporary critique of the style of George Orwell and leaves a memorable mark on anyone reading it.
While some cyber thrillers focus on the threats of NSA surveillance programs, this epic goes many levels higher where a human-based threat would feel more comforting, as all human characters in this story are pawns manipulated unknowingly by a highly deceptive god-like AI entity. This is not a robot action story like the ones with Ultron or the Terminator. Rather think, of the more realistic AI thrillers like Eagle Eye or Person of Interest.
The Characters -
Though the story contains many main characters with their own plot-lines for the major part and avoids the hero vs villain simplicity, the main protagonist for the readers is Simon Ashcroft. This character has a history in the Australian special forces(ASAS) and their foreign intelligence agency(ASIS) and is a mercenary working for a private sector company in Africa at the opening sequence. His cool, problem-solving, rationally smart mind goes through a bender with all the trials and chaos he goes through and survives with a thin line on his sanity and a sense of hopelessness against greater forces.
Another main character is a US Secret Service agent named Peri Kessler, a liberal Muslim woman, who witnessed the death of the US President but nobody believes it as this President continues to run his nation and influence world events from the confines of the White House through video calls. This dangerous application of the deep-fake technology has all the characters, and even Peri, convinced about the President’s existence for a long time.
Connor, a newspaper journalist, and a gay man, is another main character whose life spirals into chaos in this epic when he faces complex events in Latin America that makes him investigate a cyber-terrorist which leads him to a conspiracy involving an NSA funded quantum computer that might have gone off the rails.
Casey, a tourist in Africa, is another protagonist who’s targeted by the shadowy forces due to her connection to the AI’s maker. Simon is first hired to protect her, which kick starts their story into paranoia, deception, action, intrigue, and romance within a grim and chaotic world.
Though the different protagonists meet midway through the second book, all of them are involved in their own plots spanning around the world, each having the feel of an old-school paranoia-inducing, conspiracy thriller with mysteries, twists, layers, shocks, and their own different types of involvement in brutal action-packed situations. All the characters have a classical feel of authenticity and a complex three-dimensional realism in their psychological depth, which is a rare feat in many technothrillers.
The Locations -
This globe-spanning epic has locations involving Latin America, the African continent, Germany, Ireland, England, the Arabian sea, the US, India, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Afghanistan, and Australia, with the feel of a story that’s written in a way which does justice to those locations despite the grim plot. Mr. Bailey has traveled to most of the plot locations in his career, which shows his hands-on expertise and his attention to detail in his classically descriptive prose. It’s very rare to find a thriller that does justice to the African continent with its writing, but The Shatterhand Code surpasses any existing expectations you’d have. Keep in mind that this is not a happy story where the heroes exactly win.
The tech & action -
Some techno-crazy things include swarms of attack drones, deadly robotic monsters, heavily descriptive tactical weaponry, the ingenuity of the protagonists to MacGyver up to survive despite their overwhelmingly dark odds. The ships, planes, exotic cars, trains, choppers, explosives, guns, and gear are colorfully detailed but do not get in the way of the story which stays an emotional humanized tale. Some of the tech pieces have the feel of a James Bond story but grounded down in human realism. That’s understandable, as the author is a lifelong Ian Fleming fan.
The action scenes range from intense cinematic destructive set pieces, tactically realistic shootouts and chases to hand-to-hand combat and man vs tech combat scenes. Though they are written with a classical level of detail, some of them can seem very realistic while others appear on the verge of sci-fi.
While the story doesn’t fit into any fixed genre, it has heavy elements of classical espionage and spycraft, action thrillers, conspiracy-paranoia-filled chaos-fest, scientific-social-technical-political critiques, and a grim taste of the human nature which is powerless, irrational, and useless against a higher entity.
While criminally underrated, this self-contained duology’s writing is on par with the works of Tom Wood, Mark Greaney, Robert Ludlum, James Swallow(Mark Dane/Rubicon Group series), Gregg Hurwitz, and James Rollins in its attention to detail, technology, locations, prose, characters, plot, sense of realism, and the depth of ideas/concepts explored.
Filled with mind-blowing twists and turns, slowly unraveling the long plot of epic proportions, layered in rich and spellbinding narratives, The Shatterhand Code is a story that should be read at least once in every current day literate person’s life.
Spin-off / Prequels -
The author has written two spin-off short novellas starring his protagonist Simon Ashcroft which have been compiled into the book Foreign Hostage. This work includes The Assyrian Contraband and Blood Ivory, both stories set in Africa explore incidents from Simon’s life as a mercenary prior to the beginning of the main story in Threat Intelligence.
These prequel stories have a heavy Flemingesque feel to them with the type of vicious villains, exotic locales, technology, dangerous animals, grim action sequences, and the outlandish but humanized characters that combine in mind blowing stories written in a level of descriptive yet captivating prose that’s much needed in thrillers.
Though this fictional world is over with the conclusion of The Shatterhand Code Duology, these books read like timeless classics, though they are more relevant in our era, but stay detached and stand alone, with its experimental style and concepts, as a story that cannot be compared to anything else.