Matthew Farrer’s debut novel for Black Library, Crossfire is the first book in the Shira Calpurnia trilogy and introduces us to the character of Shira, newly-arrived Arbitor Senioris of the Hydraphur system. Fiercely devoted to the ideals of the Adeptus Arbites, Shira faces an uphill struggle to adapt to the swirling political waters on Hydraphur where nothing is black and white. After surviving an assassination attempt after just three days on the surface, her investigations soon bring her into conflict with the many political players on Hyrdaphur, the Inquisition, and her own concepts of what it means to be Arbites.
The Arbites are still a strangely under-developed faction within the Imperium, often portrayed as either ineffectual compared to the major military organisations, or simply one-dimensional Judge Dredd-alikes. Farrer develops them much further, showing them as a strong, efficient force capable of doing whatever it takes to see their remit carried out. Black-clad and sinister, when seen from a planetary, non-military perspective their purpose and effectiveness becomes much clearer. While perhaps not quite as detailed a depiction as the Inquisition received in Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn trilogy, there’s a similar feel to how the Arbites are fleshed out here.
Shira herself is upright and by-the-book, and her hands-on approach is completely at odds with the way things are on Hydraphur. There’s a great sense of conflict there that helps us empathise with her, and we learn our way through the complex political twists and turns at the same time as she does…and things really are complex. This is where the book struggles a little, as both the setting and the plot revolve around intricate details that are genuinely interesting, but sometimes just confusing. There’s a wealth of detail here around the history of Hydraphur and the way the system works, which is cleverly constructed but perhaps a little too dense. Things come together very nicely as the plot develops though, so it’s worth persevering when it all becomes a bit baffling.
Overall, this works as both a standalone story and as an exploration of an interesting element of Imperial life. In Shira it’s got a protagonist who’s capable of handling everything that’s thrown at her and whose rigid adherence to her own code provides increasing entertainment, in amongst a plot that – while sometimes a little too tangled – proves to be satisfying and suitably thrilling. Farrer’s imagination and overall storytelling ability shine through, from the vivid detail of life on Hydraphur to some brilliantly delivered set pieces, and nearly fifteen years after publication this still feels fresh and exciting. If you’re after huge battles and straight-up action then perhaps this isn’t the right book for you, but if you like your stories with complex characters and non-military plots then this should be on your list.