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Titan Books, 5 July 2016
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by the publisher
Six hundred years in the future, enabled by the discovery of how to fold space, humanity has spread out across the Galaxy. Old Earth is abandoned, a violent, inhospitable place, its climate ruined, and of interest only to eccentrics and romantics.
In other ways things have gone backwards - the Galaxy is ruled by the Emperor of the Solar League under whom an extensive aristocracy flourishes.
Like aristocracies everywhere, they are arrogant, entitled and more ornamental then useful (for certain values of "ornamental"). But they do have power.
Women are treated as breeding units, forbidden any autonomy and tyrannised by the Church. Aliens whose planets have been conquered by the human race are mistrusted and kept down (in a sly vignette Snodgrass shows us how under this hierarchical model even the lowest class humans have somebody to look down on: a perfect illustration of colonialism and racism).
If that makes the book sound rather worthy, it's not. I mean, it is (what's wrong with being worthy?) but it is first and foremost a story, and a well-told one. In a blend of SF, YA, school story and even fairytale ("the Princess and the Tailor's son") Snodgrass drives the plot though two enthralling - if often very annoying - protagonists, Tracy (the tailor's son - and a pretty mean stitcher himself) and Mercedes (the daughter of the Emperor). Of course, they fall in love, despite their different status and of course, this causes problems (a princess and a dirty intitulado?) But there's more going on here. There is the whole dynamic of an able, but poor, man who has an opportunity to make his mark when he wins a scholarship to the elite Academy, the High ground of the title but who is forced to defer to a bunch of often incompetent toffs. Even when he saves the day he risks being blamed for whatever has gone wrong, and can't take any credit.
Similarly for Mercedes - ostensibly a pampered, privileged daughter of power, she has no autonomy, no say over her life - she never wanted to join the High Ground, but is forced to, the first woman ever, yes, but not of her choice: it's all for for reasons of politics. yet she wants to make a success of it, not to be a token woman, to graduate: but that seems to mean having to be twice as good as the boys (while hobbled by impractical clothing). The same as the men but backwards and in high heels, as it were. There is a hilarious scene where Mercedes beats the male cadets hands down in a space fighter simulator. They're furious. It must be rigged, mustn't it? One can't help thinking of the recent tedious sulking by male gamers (so, OK, perhaps this future isn't so far from our present as you'd think...)
It's an enjoyable read. Through all their trials and setbacks, Tracy and Mercedes remain vivid, real characters, teenagers learning about life in a world they don't control and can't (much) influence (not even the all mighty Princess). This is the first volume of a series and rightly it concentrates on establishing the world and drawing the characters. There are some hints of wider things going on (in the prologue, in the mentions of Hidden Worlds and missing ships, and in the closing part of the book, where feudal politics suddenly and violently intrudes into the lives of the pair) but this is largely a character study: think Romeo and Juliet in space, with a dash of Hogwarts mixed in.
Finally, for a book that takes a swords-and-honour culture (unless you're one of the peasants, who can't afford honour) the culture was (for me) refreshingly different as the chivalric titles and general ambience are Spanish rather than Anglo. Not only did that add a dash of the exotic (again, there's humour when it's explained what the titles are derived form!), but it also avoids the impression, whenever a new character appears with a resounding title, that he (it's generally he) is clothed in furs and has just come in from a snowstorm.
The only slight drawback for me was the sheer numbers of aristocratic characters with florid titles: it's hard at times to keep up with who everyone is and whether or not they are Tracy's allies or enemies (actually that's not so hard, he has few friends). Aristocrats - what use are they?
For an interview with Melinda Snodgrass, listen to this Episode of the Tea and Jeopardy podcast, with Emma Newman.