Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review - The Radiant Seas by Catherine Asaro

Short review: After fifteen years and four children Soz and Jai are found and the galaxy goes to war. Really big war. And this time Soz is not messing around.

Following exile
War to avenge a brother
Return a husband

Full review: The Radiant Seas is the fourth book in Asaro's Skolian Saga series, but it is the direct sequel to Primary Inversion, the first book in the series. After diverting the series to stories featuring other members of Sauscosny's extended family, the Saga returns to the two heirs to rival empires who faked their own deaths and fled to a deserted planet no one else is supposed to know about in order to be together. And although all they want is to be left alone, it should come as no surprise that pretending the rest of the universe doesn't exist is not sufficient to make the rest of the universe pretend you do not exist. And before too long the story has massive fleets of starships facing each other in bitter battles while cybernetically enhanced commandos launch surprise attacks on secret installations.

The first section of the book follows three mostly independent but linked stories. In the first, Sauscony and Jaibriol set about making their home on the planet they share together, and start a family. In the second, Kurj, Sauscony's brother and Imperator of Skolia, tries to decide the question of who will succeed him now that Sauscony is thought to be dead, and at the same time manage the herculean task of running an empire that is under siege by a more powerful adversary and seems to depend upon his micromanagment. Finally, the elder Emperor Jaibriol, ruler of the Eubian Concord, continues to plot against the Skolian Empire while attempting to navigate the snakepit of treacherous plots that seems to be the norm for Eubian politics.

The two critical turns of events in this segment when the Eubians are able to attack the weak link in the Skolian infrastructure: the rare and valuable Rhon telepaths. The first occurs when the Eubians employ a new weapon that interferes with the control portions of the Skolian ships and allows them to capture Prince Althor. For the Eubians, capturing Althor is a double coup as he is both of critical military value, and because he is a powerful Rhon telepath, and therefore the ultimate "provider" for a Eubian Aristo. Since the Eubians are, by nature, brutal and accomplished torturers, Althor is subjected to horrible treatment in an effort to wrest information out of him, which finally culminates in the revelation of information that reveals the location of Soz and Jai. But this information is made critical by the second turn of events, where the Eubians, via a piece of intelligence provided by an Earth Senator, ambush the Skolian Imperator Kurj in an effort to capture him, relying upon the same technology they used to expedite their capture of Althor. But in the interim the Skolians had come up with a counter, and Kurj is able to both foil his own capture and decapitate the Eubian government by killing its Emperor.

But with the Eubian government in disarray, and the now dead Emperor's widow feeling insecure in her position, recovering Jai as the legitimate heir of the Eubian throne to be installed as her puppet becomes critical. And while Jai's return makes sense as a matter of Eubian internal politics, it exposes one of the oddities of the Eubian Aristo's as villains that bothers me. Jai proved to be Soz's perfect soul mate because he was a Rhon telepath, a fact that he has to hide from all of the other Highton Aristos for fear that they will regard him as a subhuman "provider" and subject him to a life of torture. But being a Rhon telepath is established as being an incredibly valuable asset - the existence of Soz's family of Rhon telepaths is what allows for the existence of the psiberweb, the only technology that allows the Skolian Empire to hold its own against the much larger Eubian Concord. The backbone of the Skolian military is made up of telepaths, giving the Skolians a much-needed military edge. The Eubians, on the other hand, relegate telepaths to the bottom rung of their society, and abuse them horribly to the point that Skolian military telepaths prefer to kill themselves rather than be taken prisoner. And the reason they do is the Highton Aristos that sit at the top of the Eubian heap are born sadists who feed off of pain inflicted upon telepaths. In short, a hugely valuable asset is wasted by the Eubians in the name of the sadistic pleasure of its elite

This waste of the potential of telepaths wouldn't be such a perplexing element if the Aristos weren't so incredibly rare, which makes their iron grip on control of their Empire almost inexplicable. The Aristos essentially have no particular special powers that make them anything other than parasites on actual telepaths, and yet a few hundred of them can command an empire of billions. Not only that, oppress an empire of billions, as everyone in the Eubian Concord other than the Aristos are slaves. While the brutality of the Aristos is explained by their particular genetic heritage, their ability to retain power seems somewhat implausible. The Aristos are certainly villainous - born purveyors of cruelty - but whereas we are told that Rhon telepaths are naturally brilliant and possessing of mental abilities that are critical to the survival of their nation, the Aristos essentially seem to have no particular common characteristics other than their depravity. The Jedi in Star Wars have their force powers. The Lensmen in the Lensman series have their psychic abilities. In those cases, even if the elitist message bothers the reader, it is understandable how this political system came about. But the Aristos don't seem to have anything special about them other than their dependence upon actual telepaths for pleasure. And as a result, it is hard to figure out how the Aristos, essentially parasitical psychic vampires, rose to dominate the largest known space-faring nation, and how, despite systemically criminally wasting one of their most valuable assets, they manage to stay there.

Leaving the question of Eubian politics aside, once Jai has been located and seized by the Eubians and installed as their unwilling Emperor Soz has to return to the position of authority and responsibility that she abandoned to be with Jai. And with the two lovers installed as the heads of state of the two nations, what had been a long running mostly cold war explodes into a hot war. The war escalates the ongoing technological arms race that was started with the development of quasis interference generators that caused ships to lose control of parts of themselves, countered by hiding Klein bottles inside Klein bottles, and then moving on to the Eubians pressing their "providers" into service to try to counter the Skolian use of telepaths in their military forces, and finally to the hiding of entire fleets inside Klein bottles. The odd element is that the last development takes the most effort, but seems have the least usefulness, since once the "Radiance Fleet" encounters the Eubian forces they "decloak" and engage in a pretty standard battle formation.

Unfortunately, it is when the book focuses on the war between the Skolian and Eubian forces, it loses focus. While it makes sense that in a war between star spanning empires the confrontations would be between thousands of ships manned by million of personnel, but once the numbers get to that scale, it becomes very difficult to relate to the action. At a certain scale, when 750,000 ships face off against 500,000 ships the numbers detract from the story rather than add to it. As has been famously observed, "one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic". By ramping up the numbers to presumably realistic levels, Asaro transforms the tragedy of a massive war into a counting exercise. It is only when Soz separates herself from the massive fleet she leads and pursues a commando raid with a handful of soldiers that the war feels real.

And at its core the story is of the star-crossed lovers seeking to be reunited. Soz's raid into the heart of Eubian space is thought by everyone around her to be a foray intended to recover her brother Althor, but is actually the efforts of a lover seeking to recover her beau. This is intended to be wildly romantic, but to go on her crusade, Soz has to leave her children behind in the hands of a trusted friend on Earth for the duration of the war. And knowing her children have been left behind, her decision at the close of the novel seems not so much heroic or romantic, but rather irresponsible and almost callous. Granted, it does set up the political conclusion that forms the emotional peak of the book, but it seems out of character for someone who moved an entire nation to recover her lost husband to be willing to essentially abandon all of her children to go into self-imposed exile.

In the end, the book closes with everything changed, and in another sense nothing changed. Two empires that have always been at war, go to war again. Two lovers have been thought dead, found, separated, and then reunited, are thought dead once more. The action starts with a secretive group of telepaths hiding in exile, and ends with much the same situation in place. But at the same time the war results in nations being decapitated, and a multigenerational plan that was conceived to topple one ends up neutering the other. Despite the somewhat wooden nature of the villains, and the dizzying scale of the conflict, it boils down a ferocious warrior seeking her lost love. The end result is sweeping space opera romance that moves the Skolian Saga in interesting directions.

Previous book in the series: The Last Hawk
Subsequent book in the series: Ascendant Sun

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  1. The book actually sounds really interesting.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: It is. Asaro's Skolian Saga is thirteen books long, and I'm only on book four, but it is holding up very well thus far.