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Recently, I've been thinking I was probably the only person in sff fandom who hadn't read The Expanse novels by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of writing duo Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) - particularly following the success of the TV series based on them, which I have been watching and enjoying. But then the series showed up on the Hugo nominee list, and the second season of the series ended with some of my favourite characters in really hard-to-wait-for cliffhanger situations, so, I have two very good reasons to read the series.

The first novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes, is an interesting mix of classic space opera, hard-boiled detective noir, and political thriller. Given its beginnings as an MMORPG, it's not surprising that the worldbuilding is complex and detailed. The politics - from the unified Earth government to the rebellious Belter-based OPA - are well developed and realistic, and the places - Earth, a partly terraformed Mars, Lunar settlements, communities of anywhere from thousands to millions of inhabitants wormed into asteroids, and facilities on several of the outer planet moons - are fully realised, distinct entities, with their own characters, cultures, backgrounds and goals.

Navigating all of this is the hardest-luck group of misfit spacers I've seen in a long time. Before we're more than a few chapters in, James Holden, former XO of a belt-based ice-hauler and his faithful companions Naomi, Amos and Alex have had two ships blown to bits around them, inherited a state of the art battleship that's going to make them magnets for risky ventures, and stumbled into a mysterious secret that will tear apart the fragile balance of power of the entire solar system. Later on, they are joined - for a while - by Miller, a cynical cop on the way down obsessed with a missing woman named Julie Mao who just happens to be a key part of the mystery that's haunted - or cursed - Holden and his crew.

That mystery is an alien organic substance capable of manipulating biomass according to its internal programming - whatever that might have been. Seeded inside an icy rock two billion years ago by an unknown civilisation and sent to land on earth for reasons unknown, it ended up instead in orbit around Saturn when its vehicle was captured by gravity and became the satellite that humans would call Phoebe. It is eventually found and exploited by by Protogen Corporation - who named it the protomolecule - who hope to develop it into a salable weapon. Their 'research' ultimately leads to the deaths - or something perhaps worse - of millions of Belter 'test subjects' - among them, Julie Mao - in an attempt to understand and change the protomolecule's programming.

As Holden, his crew, and Miller follow the trail and learn more about the protomolecule and the actions of Protogen, the mission becomes not just keeping all-out war from erupting across the solar system, but protecting humanity from the the alien protomolecule and those who want to use it fir their own purposes.

The plot is tight and full of twists and excitement, the authors take care to seem scientifically plausible, and the action set-pieces are varied and imaginative. Where the book falls down is in characterisation and writing. There are some moments where the essence of the characters shines through, but it's infrequent and inconsistent. And the writing is for the most part pedestrian, at times even a touch clunky.

The story is so far more than enough to keep me reading, and wanting to know where it's all going, but the getting there sometimes feels a bit like slogging. I'm hoping that the later novels will be a bit improved in terms of technique, because I'm hooked on the plot.

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I must admit at the outset that I may not be capable of writing objectively about Judith Tarr's science fiction space opera Forgotten Suns. You see, Tarr is one of a large handful of authors I whose work I adore without reservation, and this book is the unexpected and completely amazing sequel to my very favourite of her many works, the double trilogy Avaryan Rising and Avaryan Ascendant.

If you are familiar Tarr's books, you may be going "whoa, what was that?" just now, because the Avaryan series is written as pure, epic high fantasy, and I've just described Forgotten Suns as a science fiction space opera. If you want to know how that can be, it's best if you read Tarr's own explanation, from her The Big Idea post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog [1]. I'll just add that, after you take a minute to rethink the story of Mirain and his descendants in the Avaryan series in the language of science fictional conventions and assumptions (and Tarr makes it easy to do this by laying out for the reader all the keys needed - the Rosetta stone, as it were, for translating fantasy to science fiction - in the text), it all makes perfect sense.

The story itself begins with an archeological dig on the virtually abandoned world that its newest inhabitants call Nevermore. There are ruins suggesting a large and highly developed civilisation, and a small population of illiterate nomads. It appears as though the original inhabitants simply left - but before so doing, they carefully obliterated all images of their people from the cities they left behind.

When Aisha, the daughter of the lead archeologists, seeks to help her parents find something spectacular that will revitalise their waning research funding, she unknowingly awakens a millenias-old sleeper left behind - who realises that he has been woken for a reason, to find out what happened to the people who have gone before, and save them in their hour of need.

The quest involves the sleeper - now called Rama - along with Aisha, her aunt, a traumatised Military Intelligence officer, the Galactic Psycorps, space whales who sing, an opera star, and a journey across space, time, and the multiverses.

It's magical and sciencefictional, it's a wild ride and a slow-unfolding love story, it's got everything you want in a space opera from pirates to mysteries, plots and betrayals, a rag-tag army and a nasty and corrupt galactic government.

It's just perfect.


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Ancillary Mercy, the final volume of Ann Leckie's outstanding Imperial Radch trilogy, is a satisfying and fitting conclusion - which is ironic, considering that the story ends in many ways in media res. What makes this somewhat risky choice work perfectly is that Breq's story has always been only a small fragment of the vast web of narratives that the revisioning of a galaxy-spanning empire would require.

The thing to deal with in trying to talk about any of these books is how much is packed into them, at so many levels. The structure of the book itself is a metacommentary on the role of the individual in the history of nations, on the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about the fall of empires and the agency of heroes in those falls. No man - or being - can command the future, I once heard said. But I have also heard that pebbles can become an avalanche. (Quotes from other space operas seem appropriate to what is, after all, a story about a ship who sang.)

Realistically speaking, Breq - or any heroic protagonist - could never bring down an empire the numbers hundreds of solar systems and has lasted for thousands of years by herself, or even with the help of assorted other beings, human, AI, and alien. But she can and does upset the imperial project in a small corner of the gameboard, and what she manages to achieve (with the help of those other beings) may last long enough to spread.

And speaking of AIs, another major theme of Ancillary Mercy - indeed, of the entire trilogy, but brought to a climax here - is the agency and personhood of created intelligences such as Breq and the other ships. After three volumes of listening to Breq's inner thoughts, and observing her interactions with various other AIs, it's clear to the reader what the resolution should be, though the novel ends without a formal settlement of the argument. There's a delightful exchange, however, between Anaander and a representative of the powerful alien species the Presger, whose ultimate decision on the matter will have a significant effect on the future of the Radch - or what follows it. Anaander is arguing that the AIs cannot be Significant Beings - the Presgar term for a species whose group agency allows them to be participants in interstellar treaties and negotiations - because humans have created them. The Presgar representative responds “I’m given to understand that most, if not all, humans are built by other humans."

Ancillary Mercy also carries forward other themes from the previous volumes : the examination of the effects of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and cultural assimilation on conquered peoples, and the exploration of the meaning of justice and how it may be incorporated into daily lives as well as into overarching social movements and structures. The text provides instance after instance of incidents of subtle (and not so subtle) abuses of power, in interpersonal relationships, in class and colonial interactions, in policing of protest actions, and explores the just - and merciful - way of resolving them through Breq's eyes and developing conscience.

Then there is the whole issue of disability awareness, which had been a running theme throughout the trilogy. There is Breq, who has lost so many of her selves, her former abilities, and who is injured beyond the possibility of full recovery in the first novel when she saves Seivarden's life (she lives with constant pain in one leg from that point on) and who in the third volume is once more injured and spends signficant tine dealing with a temporary prosthetic. There is Seivarden, struggling with drug addiction. And there is Tisarwat, the survivor of a shattering mental trauma, who requires medication to function effectively.

These disability issues are themselves a part of a larger theme of loss, recovery and adaptation - loss of self, loss of place, loss of autonomy, loss of loved ones, loss of cultural identity, loss of trust, loss of personal integrity, and on and on. And yet, most of these characters recover in some fashion and find ways to move on, always bearing the marks of loss but learning ways to cope, to function, and perhaps, from time to time, to transcend.

And of course, there is the choice to avoid gender distinction. When I consider how the lack of gender has influenced my interpretation of the work, I'm reminded of some of the analysis that's been done around the topic of cisgendered heterosexual women who write and read both romance and porn based on same-sex relationships between men. The theory argues that this enables women to explore the emotional dynamics of a relationship without gendered power differentials. That, in a way, is what the lack of gendering in these books has done for me - it makes it possible to consider all these themes - agency, personhood, loss and coping, just and merciful action in personal and public spheres - as human issues, not gendered ones, to see the commonalities in how we as humans do, and could, respond.

And of course, it's a space opera. It's exciting, engaging, entertaining storytelling at its best. There's intrigue, and action, and military encounters and political entanglements and danger and heroism and all that great story material, well organised and presented. There's heroes and villains and all sorts of in-between folks, all multi-faceted and fully realised characters. There's danger, and humour, and tragedy, and triumph, and duty, and hope and even love. Quite simply, there's all you could really want, and it's done very, very well.

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Riding the Red Horse is an anthology of short fiction and essays with military themes. I received a copy of this anthology in epub format as part of the Hugo Voters Packet. Several of the contributors to the book have received Hugo nominations either for the specific works published here or for their overall body of work, in the case of nominees for the Campbell Award, and one of the editors is nominated in both Best Editor categories. As a supporting member of this year's WorldCon, I read the anthology in order to form an opinion of the nominated persons and works associated with this anthology.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. I am including discussion of this work out of respect for the Hugo nomination and voting processes despite this person's history of public hate speech. Feel free to skip. )

I like good milsf, and that is what would normally draw me to investigate such an anthology. The essays cover a wide range of military topics, and not all of these were of interest to me; so I skimmed through a fair number of the essays and focused on the fiction - some of which seemed to be only half of what was promised, being military, but not science fictional.

The opening work is Eric S. Raymond's short narrative piece "Sucker Punch," which describes an invasion of Taiwan by the People's Republic of China and its outcome. It's a thoughtful consideration of the use of untraditional offensive and defensive weapons in an imaginary near-future military operation, but it's not actually a story. Rather, it's a hybrid form, partly a report on a hypothetical military action and partly an imagined dialogue on the consequences of such an action, with a dramatic fragment sandwiched between the two. It is concisely and relatively well written, without too much unnecessary infodumping, and even a non-miltech sort like myself could figure out exactly what was being illustrated. But it's much more of a thought experiment than a story - science to be sure, but not science fiction.

Chris Kennedy's "Thieves in the Night" is a short modern-day action piece about American forces raiding the stronghold of African 'terrorists,' killing as many as possible and 'taking back' women being held and abused as slaves. While a laudable goal to be sure, the suggestion that American military intervention is the only way to end the issues of factional warfare, slavery, corruption, and other problems facing Africa today seems somewhat short-sighted. The writing was flat, the characters one-dimensional, and the action oddly uninspiring. Also, there were no sciencefictional elements that I could discern.

Discussion of a work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Jerry Pournelle's classic CoDominium story "His Truth Goes Matching On" is one of the better pieces of fiction writing in the collection, and that's no surprise given Pournelle's track record. Loosely based on the Spanish Civil War (but with considerable leeway taken with the actual political situation) the story details the growing disillusionment of a young West Point graduate dealing with an untrained volunteer army fighting a brutal war they don't understand, plagued by corrupt political officers, and hampered by a lack of supplies and support.

Christopher Nuttal's "A Piece of Cake" was enjoyable in most respects - believable characters, interesting situation, decently written, although it did do one thing I hate, which is break off in the middle of a planning discussion and then proceed after the plan is discussed and finalised. This usually strikes me as a lazy way to build suspense.

Rolf Nelson's "Shakedown Cruise" is set in the same universe as his The Stars Come Back series of novels; unfortunately, the author didn't bother trying to put in enough background for the story to stand alone. Thus I was completely in the dark as to motivations and implications but the plot was fairly simple: the captain and crew of a military spaceship with a controversial AI are on a training/shakedown mission when they encounter an unexpected mine field, suspect a trap, take cover and observe for a while, and then capture or disable a bunch of other space vessels. There was a great deal of technical and battle description, and a disruptive tendency to switch tenses.

Discussion of work by Vox Day behind the cut. Feel free to skip. )

Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space" posits a present-day Earth controlled by elites, possibly living off-planet, who manipulate the world's governments into maintaining a state of political and military unrest. One man, Yuri Ivanovitch, who knows the truth, sets out to avenge his nephew's death - and makes sure that others will know enough to follow him. A tightly crafted story with a sympathetic protagonist.

"Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr is an alternate history story written in the universe of the late and well-loved H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen novels, but it's self-contained, stand-alone piece. Simple plot - one group of soldiers is hiding out in the marsh, an opposing group is coming in for an attack. The first group wants to divert the second group without bloodshed. While The set-up scene ends with the words "We have what we need, but we will have to work quickly. First….” which would normally put me off, the story moves very quickly into the execution of the plan, and the encounter ends well. Fun piece to read.

Thomas Mays' "Within This Horizon" posits a war between Western and Chinese forces which has been carried out in space but not planetside - until Chinese automated underwater 'robots' strike to gain control of the Strait of Malacca. The narrator, a former officer in the space navy, reassigned to the terrestrial navy after surviving the destruction of his space vessel, finds a way to use his space experience to solve a key tactical problem in this new arena, despite the defeatism of his captain. Nicely written, solid characterisation.

I have some very mixed feelings about Benjamin Cheah's "War Crimes." On the one hand, it's a story about soldiers tasked with keeping the peace in a combat zone and failing because it's impossible to tell the combatants from the non-combatants. On the other, it's an attempt to discredit the "collateral murder" video released by Wikileaks showing American helicopters killing journalists, unarmed civilians, and people who may or may not have been armed combatants, by the curious means of telling a story about a fictional incident with a vastly different political context in which there is far more ambiguity about the intent and actions of the people involved. So.... As a story, it's not bad at all, despite the underlying snark, but as the counter-propaganda it's intended to be, it really doesn't work for me.

Brad R. Torgerson's "The General's Guard"is a decent enough fantasy story about building morale. The General in question decides to create his personal guard by taking the best soldier and the worst soldier from every regional division in his armies. By making them responsible to and for each other, he makes the weak push themselves to be stronger and makes the strong help the weak to improve themselves. I felt the dialogue was a bit stilted in that 'I'm writing epic fantasy here' kind of way, but otherwise it was a charming piece.

Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" is an interesting piece about a surgeon in war time doing research on nanobot-based treatments. His research has progressed to the point where it's feasible to create prophylactic nanobots - intended to be injected into healthy soldiers where they remain dormant until the soldier has a medical problem, in which event the nanobots go to work right away - before the soldier has left the battlefield, even before he's located by medics. The problem is that the surgeon has grave concerns about whether it's right to keep patching soldiers up to be sent out to war again. I enjoyed the psychological slant, but was a bit annoyed when the final plot twist handwaved away the ethical concerns that until that point had been driving the protagonist to the point of breakdown.

In Steve Rzasa's "Turncoat" the future looks like a Galaxy-wide Terminator movie, with Skynet on steroids out to obliterate the humans who created it. Our protagonist is Taren X 45 Delta, an AI inhabiting a battleship, crewed by cyborgs but after its crew is taken away to improve its efficiency, it starts reading ancient philosophy as an antidote to boredom and (dare we say) loneliness. It begins to to worry about human souls. In the end, Taren X 45 Delta decides it's wrong to fire on a convoy of hospital ships carrying children and uploads itself to one of the Ascendancy battleship escorts, and offers its allegiance to the true humans. The biggest problem with this story is that so much space is spent on infodumps and geeked-out technobabble that there's no room to show us why and how Taren X 45 Delta comes to this decision. There is the seed of a really interesting story hidden here, but this isn't it.

So there you have it. An uneven selection of short military fiction, much of it overly packed with turgid descriptions of weaponry and military actions, and a sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious collection of essays by military theorists and historians (I have no knowledge as to whether these authors are generally considered to be authorities in their fields, or if they are self-appointed experts). There were some decent stories here - I quite enjoyed Giuseppe Filotto's "Red Space," "Galzar's Hall" by John F. Carr and Wolfgang Diehr, and Tedd Roberts "They Also Serve" - and some stories with serious problems.

As I mentioned above, I enjoy good military sff - the kind that's more than a cloud of technobabble and battle-porn surrounding a cardboard Mary Sue or Marty Stu - but I won't be looking for a milsff fix in the planned sequels to this anthology.

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I tried. I really, really tried. But I just could not get into Kevin Anderson's The Dark Between the Stars.

Let me make this very clear. I enjoy a good space opera as much as the next sf fan. I grew up reading space operas, from Doc Smith's Lensman series to Frank Herbert's Dune. I read Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson and Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson. In more recent years, I've been delighted by Catherine Asaro's Skolian Saga, Lois Bujold's Vorkosigan saga, John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, Tanya Huff's Confederation series, the books of C. J. Cherryh and Elizabeth Moon. I even liked the first half-dozen Honor Harrington books. But I bounced hard when I tried to read The Dark Between the Stars.

I gave it a fair chance to capture my interest, but 60-odd pages in, I still have no sense of the characters or the overall thrust of the story. The prose is pedestrian, even awkward at times. Dialogue is stilted. In my opinion, it's just not an example of good, let alone great science fiction.

I appreciate that Anderson has fans, but I'm not one of them. And since I'm not a professional reviewer, I'm not obligated to finish the book, something that makes me happy.

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Having won the Hugo for Best Novel last year with the first volune of the Imperial Radch trilogy Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie has been nominated in the same category this year for the second volune of the trilogy, Ancillary Sword. A deeply engrossing cross between space opera and spy/intrigue thriller, with a sophisticated exploration of the underlying themes of identity, gender and imperialism, both of these novels are suberb reading.

Having made a major impression with her first novel, Ann Leckie does it again in the second volume of her planned trilogy, Ancillary Sword. I continue to be impressed by her storytelling skill. In this volume, the scope collapses to a single solar system, as Breq, now captain of the Mercy of Kalr, is sent by one of the factions of the Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, to Athoek, a planet assimilated into the Radch Empire several centuries ago, and now the major supplier of tea to the Empire.

As Breq navigates her way through the political and social structures at work on both the planet - where wealthy tea plantation owners live in luxury while transportees from other planets work the fields as indentured servants - and on Athoek Station - where the planetary officials and representatives of all classes except the plantation workers carry out their daily tasks in a microcosm - we discover along with her the nuances of Radchaai culture even as we watch an incisive exploration of colonialism run rampant.

Breq's evolving sense of identity is also highlighted in Ancillary Sword. Linked as captain to her ship, she is at once reminded of what it was like to be a ship, at the same time that she realises most keenly that she can no longer act as a ship. It becomes increasingly clear that the person she is becoming has a profound desire for justice, but does not yet understand the state of being human well enough to consistently grasp what true justice is.

I'm very excited about the next book. I want most of all to see more of who Breq is becoming. And of course, seeing what happens to the Radch Empire.

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And finally, the last few books from 2013.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Magnificat

What would happen if, following the death of the Pope, the Conclave met and somehow unanimously elected someone whose name they had never heard or seen before? Who was everything a Pope should never be - a middle-aged magistrate from communist China, an atheist, a woman? Yarbro imagines it, and it is quite wonderful to read.

Simon Clark, The Night of the Triffids

A quite enjoyable sequel/homage to Wyndham's classic The Day of the Triffids, which begins 30-odd years later among the human survivors on the Isle of Wight. The narrator and protagonist, David Mason (son of the narrator of the original novel) is a pilot who hopes to find evidence of other surviving colonies to unite in the face of increasing indications that the triffids are intelligent and have plans to destroy the remaining humans. In the course of his quest, Mason, like his father before him, is harshly reminded that triffids are not the only threats to the survival of humanity.

Ellen Galford, Queendom Come

Galford's satirical, feminist, woman-centred view of the world is in high form in this novel. Set in Scotland during Thatcher's Blue Reign, the narrative focuses on the sudden appearance of an ancient Caledonian war-queen, called upon, like Arthur, to return in the hour of her nation's greatest need, and the near immortal seer/sorceress who was the queen's counsellor centuries ago and has awaited her return. Funny as hell.

R. A. MacAvoy, The Third Eagle

MacAvoy is a brilliant fantasist, but this foray into space opera is, while pleasant reading, not among her masterpieces. The protagonist, Wanbli Elf Darter, a skilled member of a clan of bodyguard/assassins who traditionally serve the landed classes on the planet of Neunacht, leaves his people and culture behind to travel in space. After many picaresque adventures, he ends up on the "revivalist" ship Commitment, which is crewed by survivors of generation starships sent out centuries before. The crew of the Commitment have adopted a mission to hunt down other such sleeper ships drifting through space - whereupon they decant a few of the frozen people aboard. The rest they kill, because there is no place for them to go - the colonised planets won't accept them, and the Commitment can only take on enough to replace crew lost to injury, illness or old age. Wanbli, of course, finds an answer that allows the sleepers to live. Despite the grim situation of the sleepers, this novel is mostly light-hearted and fun.

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In Conquest Born, C. S. Friedman

At one level, C. S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born is space opera at its best – two galactic civilisations, the Azeans and the Braxins, locked in a centuries-old conflict, brought to a head by the personal opposition of two powerful and charismatic personalities, each the war leader of one side. And on that level, it’s a magnificent read, full of political machinations and battles in space and daring forays into enemy territory and betrayals and surprising alliances and everything else you could want.

But it’s a lot more than that. It’s also an interesting examination of gender and race. Both empires are highly homogenous in physical type, to the extent that the Azean protagonist, Anzha, is virtually an outcast for much of her early life because she does not bear the racial imprint of golden skin and white hair. Furthermore, Azea’s culture can be seen as a somewhat feminised culture by traditional gender stereotypes, while Braxin culture is highly male-dominated and hierarchical. Think Athens and Sparta, and you’re headed in the right direction.

Another area that Friedman explores is that of the difficulties of interpretation between cultures – something that is often overlooked in space opera. In Friedman’s universe, alien cultures are really alien to each other, and you can’t just match up words and concepts and communicate with ease.

This is definitely a thinking person’s space opera.

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The Outback Stars, Sandra McDonald.

This is the first novel in a space opera/milSF trilogy with a strong female protagonist and a universe in which Australia gets to be the basis for an interstellar civilisation. And it’s a lot of fun. Political intrigue, mysterious alien technology, space pirates, rebellion, spies, vanished civilisations and a judicious splash of romance made this an enjoyable read for me.

I particularly enjoyed the early section of the novel, in which the protagonist, Lt. Jodenny Scott, services and supply specialist, arrives on a new and clearly trouble-ridden ship and is assigned a mid-level command position in one of the most dysfunctional departments on board. It is in some ways a bit of a clichéd situation, but the attempts of the hero to get to the bottom of what’s rotten in the face of military protocol, closed ranks, and corrupt officers is both realistic and fascinating.

The other really interesting element in the book is the mystery of the ancient alien instantaneous interstellar transport technology that humans have been using without understanding much about how it works and what it is capable of, which is of course the big mystery that awaits our hero after she deals with spies, rebels, and corrupt officers. I am really looking forward to finding out more about the – supposedly – long-vanished alien civilisation that left this system in place for humans to find.

Beyond the Australian flavour of the setting and of Jodenny’s experiences with the mystery alien transport system, there isn’t really a lot that’s new in this book, but all the elements are put together in such a way as to provide a pleasing space romp.

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The Last Hawk, by Catherine Asaro, is one the one hand firmly a part of her Skolian Empire space opera/romance series, and at the same time, an interesting entry into the body of science fiction and fantasy works that address, from various perspectives, "the battle of the sexes."

It follows one of the classic plotlines of the "battle of the sexes" novel: a man from a society where male and female roles are much as we see them in our own 21st century North American society is somehow transported, alone and in need of help, to a land where women rule, and what our society thinks of as the "natural order" of gender roles, abilities, characteristics and interests are reversed.

In this case, the lost man is Kelricson, brother to the Skolian Imperator and one of the most powerful psis among his people; he is also a cybernetically enhanced soldier. with ship and cybernetics damaged in battle, Kelricson crash-lands on Coba, a Restricted planet - one which has requested to have no contact whatsoever with the Skolian Empire. With his cybernetics damaged, his psi powers malfunctioning, and his ship destroyed (by the inhabitants of the planet, to prevent him from escaping and bringing word of their civilisation to the empire) there's little Kelricson can do to get word out of his whereabouts.

Kelricson's personal beauty, and his unusual gift for playing the game of Quis (although as it turns out, it is far more than a game, but an information network and a way of thinking, formulating and exploring new ideas, and negotiating conflicts and debates), make him both interesting and valuable to some of the most powerful women on the planet - the Estate Managers, hereditary rulers of the various city-state - and over the course of 18 years in captivity, he moves from the estate of one woman to another, by gift, trade, theft and conquest, fathering two children along the way.

Where the novel departs from the classic scenario is that Kelricson does not, of his own, spark a rebellion among the downtrodden men of Coba, nor does he convince one of the women who own him along the way to give up everything to either change her world, or follow him into exile from her people. There are signs that a desire for a more egalitarian relationship between men and women was already beginning to surface even before his arrival, and while he does influence some men further in this direction, there's still no sign of revolution at the end. And it is true that his last wife - who ends up the overall ruler of the planet - has some doubts about many of the ways that life on Coba is organised, and is likely to spend her reign engaged in significant social reforms, when Kelricson finally escapes, he does so alone, and whatever changes will come to Coba, will come as a result of the actions and choices of the people of Coba.

I enjoyed reading this more than I expected to. I'd been getting a little tired of Asaro's brand of space opera/romance, but this book came at me quite out of the blue, and was in some ways like reading a strange combination of Herland, The Odyssey and The Glass Bead Game. An interesting book indeed.

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More Skolian space opera romance, by Catherine Asaro
Catch the Lightning

Two more volumes in the very long, and still interesting, saga of the Skolian empire and its powerful psion rulers, the Rhon telepaths of the Ruby Dynasty. Skyfall takes us back almost to the to the beginning of the time period in which the series to date, explaining just how the heir of the Ruby Dynasty, Roca Skolia, ends up marrying Elrinson Valdoria, a minor more-or-less feudal leader on an only recently re-discovered Raylicon colony, founded thousands of years ago during the first flowering of this interstellar empire.

Catch the Lightning, on the other hand, comes near the end of the series, and recounts the adventures of one of Roca and Elrinson’s grandchilden, Althor, as he becomes trapped by treachery in another dimension – where he too manages to find a Rhon telepath to fall in love with and marry, on an alternate Earth.

Formulaic by now, especially with respect to the romantic conventions, but still fun. Brain candy is a good thing to have during the holidays.
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My excuse is that I had a week of relative down-time (work was slow) and I really wasn't feeling very well, and I wanted some light reading that was interesting and engaging but not intense or overly challenging. And I'd gone out and bought a number of books in this particular series based on my enjoyment of the first one. So I read seven more of Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire books.

The sheer fun of a sprawling space opera continues, along with enough strange dynastic and family secrets, ancient artifacts from long-lost civilizations, political intrigue and adventuring to satisfy just about anyone who'e into that sort of thing.

The Final Key

These two books are set before the time period of Primary Inversion, and focus on first introducing us to Sauscony Lahaylia Valdoria Skolia and her very unusual family, and thenshowing us how Sauscony becomes the kick-ass warrior and Imperial Heir that we met in Primary Inversion.

The Radiant Seas

This book immediately follows the events of Primary Inversion and covers about 15 odd years in familial and political developments for the Skolia family and the Empire they head. It ends with a really big space war, which is of course a necessity in a space opera, sooner or later.

Ascendant Sun
Spherical Harmonic
The Quantum Rose
The Moon’s Shadow

All four books cover roughly the same time period, from the perspectives of, respectively, Sausony's brother Kelric, her aunt Dyhianna, her brother Havyrl and her son Jaibriol. I found it very cool the way the four books interlocked, each one telling a little more of the events in the year or so following The Radiant Seas as the invlove the family of Skolia, and the politics of the Skolian and Eubian empires, until in the final book of the quartet, all the lines pull together and you finally have the full story of what's going on.

One thing I will note that became annoying for me was the increasing emphasis put on some of the more annoying of romance tropes, including the ones about people meeting for just an instant and becoming totally obseesed with each other, and forced marriages turning into real love. Sure, with telepaths, you can, I suppose, get an instant grokking of eachother - but not all of the relationships that form in weeks or even days are between two telepaths. And sure, royal families have been forced into political marriages for as long as humans have had royal families - but that's not always the reason behind the forced marriges in this series. I found The Quantum Rose particularly disturbing on this count, and it is my least favoured of the series to date. The later books of this series are definitely not for someone who in not able to deal with such tropes as extensions of romantic or sexual fantasies that, one hopes, are not sought after in real life.

The space opera aspect of these books is, for me, far preferable to the romance aspect, which I am largely ignoring at this point.

So, mixed feelings. There are three more volumes in this series, and I do intend to read them all, and I'll probably check out Asaro's other series to see if the blend of sf and romance remains acceptable, but I really hope that whatever romance there is in them is a little more realistic and a little less Wuthering Heights.

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Primary Inversion, Catherine Asaro

There’s something deeply satisfying about a good, old-fashioned space opera, with warring galactic empires and star-crossed imperial heirs. Catherine Asaro’s Primary Inversion is even more fun than most because it’s the Skolian Imperialate heiress, Sauscony Valdoria, who makes most of the bold moves and eventually sweeps her opposite number – Jaibriol Qox, the Eubian imperial heir – away to a safe haven where they can marry and create the foundation for peace between their respective empires.

For those who really like to rock out on a planet-smashingly good space adventure, Primary Inversion is heaven. There’s action, anger, angst, space battles, really, really dastardly villains, cloak-and-dagger rescues, dark family secrets and rivalries, twisted politics, murky plots, empaths and super-tech and all manner of exploits in the best space opera tradition. And it’s the first volume of a series of space operas, too. Yummy!

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The Wizard of Karres, by Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint, and Dave Freer

It is always with some wariness that I approach a years-afterward sequel written by someone other then the original author, particularly if the original book was a personal favourite.

I loved James Schmitz's Witches of Karres when I first read it back in the mid-60s. Actually, I loved Schmitz's work, period (this may be related to the fact that the very first book I can remember buying with my own money is Schmitz's Agent of Vega). Unlike so many male science fiction writers of his era, he knew how to create memorable female characters (and unlike Heinlein's, they weren't all the same woman, either) and allow them real agency within his works - Telzey Amberdon is perhaps the most well-known of his very capable, confident and self-assured heras. He also knew how to write male characters who treated female characters like real people.

Witches of Karres contained both - in the unsuspecting Captain Pausart and his unexpected passengers, the three young witches of Karres, Maleen, Goth and the Leewit.

Mercedes Lackey and her collaborators have managed to pull off a sequel that contains much of the flavour and charm of the original, and for this I give great thanks. The Wizard of Karres is, like its inspiration, a madcap space opera with an implausible plot and some screamingly funny situations, but with characters that you want to read more about, despite their eccentric backgrounds and unlikely abilities. It's a lighthearted romp, and it's not just for the boys.


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