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Orbit, 4 August 2016
Source: Advance copy kindly supplied by Orbit
KB Wagers has written an enthralling, old school military SF novel - with some new school twists.
Cressen Stone is a notorious gun runner. She worked for the Po Sin organisation. Her adventures are told across the Galaxy. She's wanted by the Solaria Conglomerate on seventy eight counts of arms trafficking, by the Galactic Security Board on forty three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and by sundry other law enforcement agencies on another hundred and six counts (and there may be more because the list was cut off at that point in the book).
Cressen is also wanted by the Empress of the Indranen Empire. Twenty years ago Princess Hailimi Mercedes Jaya Bristol (Hail or Haili to her few friends) disappeared.
Cressen knows why and where she went.
Because Cressen is Haili.
Now, in a time of crisis and rising tension, Haili's Empress-mother wants her home to do her duty. There's little maternal affection here: it's a matter of bloodline, dynasty and the survival of Empire.
Thus begins a rollercoaster of intrigue, assassination, awesome violence and general chicanery. There is treachery, family rivalry and bitter, bitter guilt over the mistakes of the past.
All this takes place in a galactic Empire familiar(ish) from the pages of SF but also distinctive. I loved how Wagers did this, skilfully blending the conventional (a semi-feudal and very hierarchical social structure) and the different (the Indranen Empire is matriarchal, for reasons which are explained and which make perfect sense, and its culture and religion are loosely Hindu rather than Western overall - which makes for a refreshing change from Roman Empire- or Medieval Europe- In-Space). The politics Haili's embroiled in is relatively familiar (a number of parallels come to mind, most obviously Dune) as is the idea of an heir who lives a dissolute life but then has to sober up, go back home and take on royal duty (Henry IV Part I perhaps?) However by taking the whole thing out of the normal male and Western centric setting, Wagers makes her story fresh without it ever becoming worthy. (Indrana is not a model society by any means - something Haili is well aware of and which will I think have to be faced in future volumes of this series).
Haili herself is a terrific central character. I have a bit of a weakness for women armed to the teeth who take no nonsense from anyone (in stories!) and she's that to the nth degree. You'd want her on your side in a fight, no question. Oddly, the life of a gunrunner proves a good preparation for being a Crown Princess...
And there are also some excellent supporting characters - most notably Haili's BodyGuard Emmory, but also the Empress herself. Indeed Wagers's characters all very much appear as real, three dimensional people who are directing the story and not simply archetypes. For example Haili has a strained relationship with her mother but isn't simply a spoiled and petulant Princess: there is history here and it makes sense of what they both do. But most of all she's able to see what's going on, as we all do, and try to mend things - allowing for that burden of guilt I mentioned - in the little time left.
So - I greatly enjoyed this book, and am looking forward to what happens next. The book breaks off at a moment of great crisis and there are certainly thrills and spills to come. More fundamenetally, as I said above, the Indranen Empire is, well, a feudal Empire and Haili knows that a great deal is wrong with that. Might it be that a reluctant Empress can improve things? I can see the followup - and I'm sure there will be a followup - turning into something like I, Claudius.